The Language of Faith

My favorite novel is Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century masterpiece Don Quixote. I love its mixture of comedy and tragedy, pathos and satire, and its deep exploration of what it means to be a human being who reads books and tries to make sense of the world through them. I have read Don Quixote in three different English translations. But I always read it in English.

It’s not that I don’t read Spanish. I do. I can read a Spanish-language newspaper and get just about everything that is going on. I have reasonable comprehension at the surface level, but I can’t plumb the depths. Deep reading of something really important, for me at least, must be done in my native language—the one that I acquired in my childhood and have used ever since to make my way through the world.

This is even truer of great books in languages that I don’t understand—the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Mann. These are among the most meaningful and important things that I have read in my life. But I have to read them in English. This does not mean that English is a better language than Russian, French, or German. And it certainly does not mean that these translations are better than the originals. All translations are imperfect, some deeply so. And yet, these imperfect translations allow people like me access—no matter how flawed—to humanity’s greatest minds and creative spirits.

But this is not a post about my favorite books. It is a post about why I am, and remain, a Latter-day Saint.

I do not stay in the Church because I have had an irrefutable spiritual witness that I cannot deny. I know that some people have, and I respect their experience. For many years, I sought such a witness desperately, but it has never come. For me, faith is based in hope, not certain knowledge, but that’s OK. I have come to see hope as one of the greatest things that human beings are capable of; and I marvel at its power to shape a spiritual life.

I also do not stay in the Church because it gives me answers to my deepest questions. I have very few answers of this sort. But I keep asking because my humanity depends on my always being engaged in conversation about the big questions: What do I mean? How should I live? What will be left of my life when it is over? These are the main topics of my lifelong dialogue with myself—and whoever else might be listening in on the conversation.

My religion is the language of my faith. It provides the vocabulary that I need to frame my deepest questions, and it gives me the metaphors that I need to make infinite and ineffable things hold still long enough to examine. I do not claim that the language of my faith is the best language in the world, or that it provides a perfect translation of God’s mind and intentions. I only claim that it is my language—the one that I acquired in my childhood and have used ever since to make my way through the world.

I stay because my religion is the language of the questions that I have to ask in order to live meaningfully in the world.

Comments

  1. andrewheiss says:

    This is perfect. Thank you!

  2. Very well said, Michael.

  3. The final three sentences of this post, Michael—

    I do not claim that the language of my faith is the best language in the world, or that it provides a perfect translation of God’s mind and intentions. I only claim that it is my language–the one that I acquired in my childhood and have used ever since to make my way through the world. I stay because my religion is the language of the questions that I have to ask in order to live meaningfully in the world.

    —not only truthfully describes myself, but, I suspect, if only they had a handle on the art of introspection, the great majority of all Mormons, or even just all religious believers ever, period. Great stuff.

  4. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I could have written this–but as usual Mike beats me to it!

  5. Hmmm. Inspirational. I might give a talk sometime about how books bolster my faith. *taking notes*

  6. This is lovely, but in my opinion incomplete. Mormonism ought to be more than simply a language in which we have conversations with ourselves. It must also say SOMETHING powerful in a voice of authority that demands that we consecrate all that we have to building up Zion. That is more than the idiom and argot of childhood preferred from habitual use.

  7. “This is lovely, but in my opinion incomplete. Mormonism ought to be more than simply a language in which we have conversations with ourselves.”

    Yes, what makes Mormonism work for me, at the deepest level in which I am capable of having faith, is not the same as what makes it work for you. And yet, we are still called to work together to build the Kingdom of God, despite the fact that we see very important things differently. Pretty neat, isn’t it?

  8. Michael: My comment isn’t a summary of what makes Mormonism “work for me.” It’s not an account of my biography or my psychology. It’s a normative claim that may be true or false but isn’t really about me. Much of what makes Mormonism work “for me” is pretty local and contingent, but in the end that Mormonism works “for me” is one of the least interesting or important things that can be said about it.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    Mormonism was not my childhood language, and I remember learning it as a youth, and learning more of it as an adult. All along I have been ministered to by many adult converts to Mormonism; their voices are part the language of Mormonism that has entered my ears. Also the voices of first generation 19th Century Mormons preserved in writing.

  10. John Mansfield says:

    Put another way, there are a lot of Mormon Joseph Conrads.

  11. nateoman says: “My comment isn’t a summary of what makes Mormonism “work for me.” It’s not an account of my biography or my psychology. It’s a normative claim that may be true or false but isn’t really about me.”

    I disagree. I think a normative statement is entirely about you. It is an opinion statement. It is a statement of how you believe things should be, not a statement of how they really are. It is not a black and white statement that is either true or false (that would be a positive statement). It can be true for some groups or cultures and false for others.
    Also making a statement that Mormonism “must also say SOMETHING powerful in a voice of authority” is not practical. What if it doesn’t say that to me? It has to say the same thing to everyone? Or else what? I’m confused by what you’re saying here. If it doesn’t say that to me I should pretend that it does? Or should I pray until it does? Or force myself to feel something I don’t? Or should Mormonism change until it does?

  12. Also, Michael I thought this eloquently describes how I feel much of the time. Thank you.

  13. Funny, I don’t interpret Michael as saying there isn’t a normative core of ultimate Truth in Mormonism that is unique and beneficial to the world as true religion.

    Even a religion that has that needs to “work” for its adherents, otherwise there wouldn’t be any adherents. Even those advocating abject submission to religious authority for its own sake must surely recognize that. After all, we believe that the Gospel makes its adherents’ lives objectively better, both temporally and spiritually. So it seems like maybe God also thinks true religion needs to “work” for its adherents.

  14. Nice, John Mansfield. As a native Mormon who has braved Cervantes, Garcia Marquez, and Lispector in the original, I see the merits working in one’s deep native vernacular as well as the surprise of recognition and growth that happens when you allow yourself to be “othered” by a text or a tradition. Thanks for a thought-provoking read, Mike.

  15. Like every time I see your writing, I like this, it speaks to me, it tells a truth that I recognize. As a first person “I stay because” it is beyond cavil. And yet . . . for those who would like to liken it to themselves:
    1. This speaks more to fit and (dare I say?) comfort than to authority, requirement, and distinctiveness. For some that is not enough. See comments above.
    2. For many the language acquired in childhood is something different. About my favorite and closest adult convert (my wife), who is a far better and more observant Mormon than I am, I like to say that she is fluent but not native.
    3. For me, I have discovered that the language acquired in childhood, in a cradle-to-grave Mormon family (arguably very liberal Mormon family), is more properly 19th and 20th century Christian, both Protestant and Catholic, than it is distinctly Mormon.

  16. Just when I thought I could not love your writing any more you come up with this! Yes for me Mormonism has always been a Kierkegaardian leap, not a set of synthetic propositions. I love the idea that it is a language that gives me access to higher things. Thank you.

  17. Great post. Insightful as usual.

    On a related note, I always marveled at how people can try to claim to know or speak for God. They even trot out some scriptures, which tend to be an inferior translation of something that is woefully incomplete, and think they understand God. The funny thing is even if someone could speak the languages of the Bible or any other Scripture, and even if they somehow were able to understand that language in the context of the time period they were written, they would be a far cry from actually knowing God. At best, you end up with someone’s limited understanding of what they experienced of God.

    What language does God speak? Do you actually think that God speaks a language at all? Or even speaks? Language is inheritantly flawed, as as linguist can tell you. It’s why I am always suspicious of people who act as if they have every answer for every situation and speak for God. They almost certainly don’t. The more and more you hear them talk, the more that becomes obvious. Religion is the enemy of true spirituality. Seek and you will find, knock and you will be answered.

  18. Christian J says:

    Micheal, You’ve compelled me to consider what *part of the Mormon language I identify with, because in my life of searching, I’ve often been drawn to American Evangelical style preaching, Catholic political activism and Muslim modes of prayer. At its heart, there are fundamental Mormon doctrines, practices and everyday quirks that have won out time and again. I don’t believe God sees our cultural or linguistic stumbling blocks as an “oops”. I must believe they are deliberate and something to embrace.

  19. Much as it pains me to say it, I think I agree with Nate here–although Mormonism is my native language, I find it necessary also to believe that if I learned that some other language existed which would help me more fully understand what is and ought to be, I want to believe that familiarity and comfort would not be so important that I would resist learning a new or more difficult language and acknowledging the inadequacy of my native tongue. That is, I want something more from religion than I need from language–I want it to help me meaningfully judge between Cervantes and Goethe (which is, of course, both impossible and unnecessary. In the realm of language and literature, relativism is benign. It is not so, I think, with religion. Religious conviction has to be something other than aesthetic preference).

  20. “Religious conviction has to be something other than aesthetic preference”

    You wound me!

  21. Kristine: You made my day.

  22. “Religious conviction has to be something other than aesthetic preference”

    If they were, I think it’s pretty clear that everyone would ossilate between Episcopalianism and small, evangelical churches with a bluegrass band.

  23. Kristine . . . Nate . . . so long as you are saying “FOR ME religious conviction has to be something other than aesthetic performance” I can agree wholeheartedly. But as and when you veer into “FOR YOU . . . has to be”, I reject that. That is a particular view of religion and religiosity, and while a common one within Mormonism, not the only way to go. “Oscillate between Episcopalianism and small, evangelical churches” is a cheap shot that avoids the rich depths and profound consequences of aesthetic preference.

  24. I think you hit a major vein here, Christian. I, too, would disagree (in my own experience) with the statement that “religious conviction has to be something other than aesthetic preference,” on the grounds that aesthetic experiences are among the most powerful things that I know how to feel and I take them very seriously. The distinction between aesthetic and moral feeling (and this is a much longer argument than one can make in a comment section) is a distinction that we draw at a very advanced level of cognition. In my experience, most of us use aesthetic and moral vocabularies in order to justify and explain much more visceral and instinctive judgments that we arrive at long before we start to employ categories like “art” and “religion.”

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all
    Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

  25. A different Kimball once said, “The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?”

    I’m trying to square a professed lack of revelatory experiences with this quote above, mingled with the idea that you remain a latter-day saint primarily because that’s your language for faith.

  26. I refuse to add the “FOR ME,” for two reasons. First, if we are talking about the particular claim that I made, I think that adding the “FOR ME” is mistaken. I am not making a claim about what works for me. I am making a claim about what religion should be. My claim is that if it is just a matter of aesthetics or language, then it is inadequate, incomplete, and a failure. You may believe that this claim is mistaken, and I am fine if we want to argue the truth or falsity of the claim but it simply is not a claim about my psychology or experience.

    The second reason for refusing to add the “FOR ME,” is that I want to resist the idea (articulated above by EBK) that normative claims cannot be true or false or anything other than claims about subjectivity. I think that this idea is false, and in any case even though people trot it out from time to time no one really believes it, so what’s the point of encouraging it.

    As for aesthetics, to say that something is inadequate or incomplete is not the same thing as saying that it is unimportant. And for the record, I think that Foggy Mountain Breakdown IS profound.

  27. “The second reason for refusing to add the “FOR ME,” is that I want to resist the idea (articulated above by EBK) that normative claims cannot be true or false or anything other than claims about subjectivity.”

    OK, I’ll bite. I think that you are making an argument here that is simply inconsistent with how the English language works. To say that a normative claim, “X is what religion should be” can be “true or false” mixes up the basic conceptual categories of fact and value. “Should” is inherently a value judgment. “You should eat broccoli,” “Shakespeare should be taught in high school,” “religion should speak with authority about building Zion,” etc. These are not the kinds of claims that can be true or false. You can argue (and I would not entirely disagree with you) that they can be right or wrong, or that they are supported by facts (broccoli has vitamins, Shakespeare has influenced many other writers, etc.), but these are not, in themselves, the sorts of claims that the conceptual categories built by the English language can recognize as fact claims–therefore, it is simply bad grammar to argue that they are true or false.

  28. I see no reason why value claims cannot be true of false. The claim, “We should not bludgeon English teachers to death with copies of Proust” is true. Why and how it is true may be a difficult question to answer, but this is the case for many true statements. Rather, there is linguistic violence going on when we claim that the the sentence “We should not bludgeon English teachers to death with copies of Proust” is somehow conceptually confused if we don’t amend it to “For me, we should not bludgeon English teachers to death with copies of Proust.” The second sentence is not the equivalent of the first sentence and the first sentence is perfectly understandable without the additions contained in the second sentence. We would also — quite properly — regard someone who spoke the second sentence as being morally confused rather than philosophically insightful. This is because they would be misunderstanding the evil of murder as being a matter of subjectivity. This is true of value statements that are not also moral claims. There is no linguistic violence in saying that the sentence “Rotten mackerels make poor sledgehammers” is true.

  29. “true or false” not “true of false”

  30. Also, subjectivity is a coward’s game. To qualify every judgement with “for me” is to insulate one from the risk of ever being mistaken.

  31. Again, the statement may be right or wrong, but it is not true or false. This is simply an argument about language–not about whether or not English teachers should be bludgeoned to death with French novels. By definition, verifiable fact claims can be true or false. Value judgments can be right or wrong, but they cannot be true or false precisely because, as value judgments, they cannot be verified in any objective way. Certainly people smuggle value judgments into fact claims all the time, and if the claims are the sorts of outrageous ones that you are using above nobody calls them on it, but this does not make it correct usage. And it becomes extremely abusive when people do it with value judgments that are not as clear cut and obvious as the ones that people making abstract arguments dream up to prove their points.

    If you tell me that Los Angeles is the capital of California, I will say that this is false. And I have ways to prove it. If you tell me that Shakespeare is a better writer than Dan Brown, I will agree with you, but I cannot say that this is a true or a false statement, since there is no mutually agreed upon way to verify this judgment objectively.

    And when you tell me that my own religious experiences–which are unlike yours but are nonetheless very powerful and meaningful to me–are “false,” “inadequate,” “incomplete,” and “a failure,” I cannot, under the terms of my own argument, say that your conclusions are false–as I do not believe that you are making claims of fact that are subject to rebuttal in the language of fact. But neither can I pretend (as you apparently can) that it is just an abstract argument about normative claims.

    Statements like, “I’m right and you’re wrong; my religious experiences are legitimate and yours are a failure” are not particularly unique in the history of religion, Mormon or otherwise. But they have never been a particularly good way to build the Zion that you want your religion to speak with great authority about building.

  32. Michael: I don’t think that I have claimed that your religious experience is radically different than mine or that it is false. I have only claimed that that language is ultimately an incomplete way of understanding what religion ought to be. I don’t think that the use of the word “ought” disables my claim form being true or false, and I am certainly open to the idea that I could be wrong and the claim could be false. I just don’t think that in making the claim I am guilty of some kind of linguistic or conceptual failure rather than (perhaps) a substantive mistake. Just because something is contestable or even ambiguous doesn’t mean that it is necessarily subjective nor that we commit a conceptual, moral, or intellectual mistake when we form beliefs about such things. It just means that we should probably be humble about our beliefs and open to the possibility that we could be wrong. I am fine admitting that I could be wrong, but I do not think that I am wrong because I am conceptually confused.

    “By definition, verifiable fact claims can be true or false. Value judgments can be right or wrong, but they cannot be true or false precisely because, as value judgments, they cannot be verified in any objective way.”

    I think that it is a mistake to assume that truth or falsity hinges on verifiability. The claim that right now there is a rock shaped like Steve Evans’s face on a planet circling a star 131,154,875 light years from Pluto can be true or false even though there is — as far as I know — no way in which we can verify whether it is true or false. It may be correct that there is no way that we can objectively verify whether a value judgments are true or false, but this wouldn’t answer the question of whether they are true or false. Finally, the fact that disagreements about difficult-to-verify claims can become abusive tells us nothing one way or the other about whether such claims can be true or false. Disagreements about whether the sun goes around the earth or vice versa have become abusive at various times in history, even though such disagreements are — I am assuming you would agree — disagreements about truth and falsehood that are subject to verification. The problem with abusive relationships isn’t generally that the abuser is making a conceptual mistake. Rather, it is that the abuser is making a moral mistake.

  33. I’ve seen that rock, and it’s spectacular.

    Nate, explain to me, as you would a child, what’s your beef here. Sounds like mostly you’re upset that Mike’s analogy was incomplete as a way of conceptualizing a religion – to which I’d say, well, of course it’s incomplete, all analogies are.

  34. “I think that it is a mistake to assume that truth or falsity hinges on verifiability. The claim that right now there is a rock shaped like Steve Evans’s face on a planet circling a star 131,154,875 light years from Pluto can be true or false even though there is — as far as I know — no way in which we can verify whether it is true or false. It may be correct that there is no way that we can objectively verify whether a value judgments are true or false, but this wouldn’t answer the question of whether they are true or false.”

    But there is a difference between a claim that cannot be verified right now, at the current level of technology, but belong to the category of things that can be verified, and things that can’t be verified because they don’t belong to the category of things that can ever be verified because they are value judgments and value judgments are simply not subject to the language of fact. In the former case, we simply say that the person making the claim has the burden of proof. In the latter case, we say that the person making the claim has misidentified the kind of claim that is being made.

    What you are doing is asserting a value claim as if it were a fact claim and subjecting it to the same kinds of evidentiary standards that work for facts. This is a category error. But if you want me to treat it like your example of Steve Evans face on a faraway planet, just for the sake of argument, I will play along. You have asserted that religion should be certain things, and that my assertion of what religion means to me is “incomplete, inadequate, and a failure.” Even under the terms of your argument, you have the burden of proof to verify the assertion you are making.

    Prove it.

  35. Steve: I have only two beefs. My only beef with Michael was that while I think his analogy is beautiful and insightful, it is also incomplete, missing something important and fundamental about religion. My other beef is unrelated to Michael’s post and is with the point made in the comments responding to my initial comment, namely that claims about what “ought” to be the case are necessarily subjective. This second beef is just a philosophical position that I think is dead flat wrong, but I don’t think it really has much to do with Michael’s original post. (Also, I am prepping corporate law this afternoon and unusually easy to distract.)

  36. Michael: My argument would go something like this. Religion purports to point us beyond ourselves, toward something that is great, powerful, and has the ability to make demands upon us. You suggest that religion is a kind of language. Language can indeed point us toward something that is beyond ourselves, something great, powerful, and which has the ability to make demands upon us. But it is not it’s status as language that lets it do this. Rather, it is because there is in fact something great, powerful, and having the ability to make demands upon us to which that language connects us. The mere fact that the language is ours or that it is familiar or that it is an inheritance of childhood is insufficient to warrant that the language will be adequate to the task. Hence, my claim that to think of religion merely as a language misses something important. It misses, for example, what might separate religion from other kinds of linguistic activity, like nursery rhymes or tax returns. In essence, my claim is that religion as just language is inadequate in the way that sardines are inadequate as sledgehammers. It is a conceptual framing that fails to accomplish the tasks for which religion is generally used, just as sardines are inadequate to the task for which sledge hammers are generally used.

  37. Nateoman:
    I could probably agree with you that some normative statements are arguably true or false across the board but I believe only when they are discussing behavior not feeling. What a particular religion inspires in people is not something anyone can dictate. To say that everyone ought to act a certain way is different than saying everyone ought to feel a certain way.

  38. Regarding subjectivity, no comment (i.e., nothing to add). Regarding the claim that linguistic activity or aesthetic preference is inadequate, I think you are imposing a requirement on religion that it bring us all to the same place. But I think that simply is not a requirement of religious thought or belief or faith. A linguistic or aesthetic approach can lead to a whole and abiding faith (for some people), and I don’t know how anyone could say otherwise (about other people’s experience). It is inherently lacking in comparability, limited in the ability to say I am right and you are wrong, or you should think or believe in a certain way, and sure that is a common (and I often think regrettable) aspect of Mormon culture. But not necessary and not a measure of adequacy.

  39. Nate, I think that the argument you outline above is a fine philosophical argument–one that, stated as the subjective value judgment that it is, causes me to rethink some of the things I said in the original post. It makes a value claim exactly the way that value claims should be made: by appealing to areas of shared values and then demonstrating how the conclusion that you come to proceeds rationally from the shared assumptions.

    As “proof” of a fact, though, it doesn’t even begin to meet the burden of proof that you necessarily assume when you make the kind of claim you are making.

    In the first place, it is all premised on your statement “Religion purports to point us beyond ourselves, toward something that is great, powerful, and has the ability to make demands upon us.” This is a definitional argument, which is a different sort of claim than either a claim of fact or a claim of value. Definitions are “true” or “false” to the extent that they account for all of the things that most people accept as part of the category being defined. And your definition of what religion purports to do does not account for the beliefs of a rather large number of belief systems that any definition of “religion” has to account for.

    Many religions do not purport the things that you claim as necessary to a definition: Taoism does not. Buddhism does not. The Unitarian-Universalist Church does not. Hell, I’m not even sure that most contemporary American Prebsterians meet your criteria. It is very possible for one to be religious and not believe in a higher power that stands outside of oneself (Buddhist) or that the higher power makes no demands whatsoever on us (Taoist) or that religion is primarily a social phenomenon that strengthens people through symbols and metaphors that resonate deeply with parts of a person not touched by rational discourse.

    By invoking outrageous examples of normative truth claims, you are engaging in a bit of rhetorical legerdemain that appears to prove something that it does not prove. You say, “of course we can make normative truth claims; it is wrong to bludgeon an English teacher to death with a hardback omnibus of ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ There, I’ve made a value claim, and nobody can dispute that it is factually true.” But what you have really done is choose a value claim that is so universally accepted (Joyce maybe, but definitely not Proust) that nobody disagrees with it. There are plenty of these statements to choose from, especially if one’s immediate acquaintance does not include sociopaths and serial killers.

    The slight of hand comes when you pull back and say, “now that I have proved that you can make normative truth claims, I will proceed to make some about contested value judgments, since it is the same process. Thus I say that teachers should not teach Proust and metaphorically bludgeon their students with his prose.” But it isn’t the same thing at all. There is a difference between a normative claim being a “fact” and it being a value that is so universally held that nobody can seriously disagree with it. They are, as a matter of definition, different kinds of assertions with different evidenciary requirements, but, with well chosen examples they can look the same at a distance.

    But let’s look at your sardine/sledgehammer example–I think it is the most intriguing, and illustrative one of all. It is based on a verifiable truth claim: that sardines lack the force necessary to drive a nail through a piece of wood (or smash concrete, or whatever). This is a testable hypothesis that can be reasonably asserted as a fact. This fact–combined with your unstated assumption that it is foolish to use something to accomplish a task that does not in fact accomplish that task–means that it is silly to try to use a sardine as a hammer.

    But this is not the case with religion. There is no verifiable way to prove, objectively, whether or not religion “works” for its intended purpose. and there are millions of people who consider themselves religious who do not believe in something “great, powerful, and has the ability to make demands upon us.” As far as I know, there is nobody who built something with sardines and nails who imagines him or herself to be living in a functional house. These are two different kinds of claims–one that is based clearly in a verifiable fact and one that is not.

    So when I peel everything away, I am having a very hard time telling the difference between your statements in this thread and the rather prosaic, “what I consider good religion is true and what you consider good religion is false.” And I think that this is a shame, because your value arguments have so much merit right up until the time that you try to assert them as facts.

  40. Fascinating exchange between Michael and Nate. However, I have to side with Michael.

    Nate wrote: “This is lovely, but in my opinion incomplete. Mormonism ought to be more than simply a language in which we have conversations with ourselves.”

    On the one hand there is Mormonism with its leaders, buildings, doctrines, policies, and system of evaluating worthiness. And on the other hand there are the members of LDS church, which, according to church statistics, number over 15 million. Mormonism already IS more than a language in which he have conversations with ourselves. Much, much more. However, to be a Mormon, all you have to do is be alive and have your name on a list at the COB that indicates the date on which you were supposedly baptized and confirmed. That guy I baptized in Brazil on my mission who went back to drinking and came for only one week after he was baptized is as much a Mormon (unless he requested that his name be removed from the records or was excommunicated) as Thomas S. Monson. He is counted among the 15 million+ members. Now is this guy behaving or believing in the manner in which the LDS leaders would have him? Probably not. It is likely that he no longer identifies as a Mormon and may have even forgotten that he was baptized. But that’s beyond the point. In the OP, Michael is not trying to make a claim about what Mormonism should or shouldn’t be. He is merely explaining why he remains in the LDS church in spite of not having had irrefutable spiritual witness of the truthfulness of its claims or believing in the way that the conventional active LDS person does. So how could his rationale for staying in the LDS be “incomplete” or “inadequate”? The Mormon leaders have not made any requirement about one’s rationale for being a Mormon. They welcome all to become LDS and stay in the church, except for a few whose behavior is drastically out of line with their teachings (no adulterers) or who, like John Dehlin, Rock Waterman, Kate Kelly, and others openly question the authority of leaders and create stirs in the congregation.

    That said, however, I agree with you about language and religion being in completely two different categories. Language and religion are vastly different from each other. But this isn’t because of what religion SHOULD be. Rather this is because of what religion IS. Religion is inextricably linked with questions of right and wrong. Language is not.

    In the end, however, Michael is right in that no one can tell him what his religious experiences and reasons for remaining in the LDS church should or shouldn’t be and whether or not they are adequate. This just comes off as judgmental.

  41. A side note, Michael. I think that you’re assuming that people are in agreement about values and facts much more than they actually are. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that the fact-value distinction holds. For much of what we call fact cannot be without values. It seems that there are just different values, some of which are better at predicting actual patterns in nature and more consistent with historical accounts than others. Although I’ve never met anyone like this, it is possible that someone could believe that Los Angeles was the capital of California or that someone built a house using sardines instead of hammers. Maybe they value the idea of miraculous occurrences (such as the idea that such a time was the only time when someone managed to pound nails with sardines) or the idea that we should be paranoically skeptical of common knowledge. It could be that someone believes that it is a government conspiracy to suppress knowledge that Los Angeles is the true capital of California, or perhaps someone has a private definition of the word capital that would apply to Los Angeles, but not Sacramento.

    To tie this back into the OP, it could very well be established that a particular religion is working for its intended purpose. It just depends on what people define the intended purpose as and what they value as evidence. That said, however, what religion is and isn’t is not simply in the eye of the beholder. Establishing the definitions of words is much like establishing the monetary value of goods on the market: through collective perception. So I would say that your equation of religion with language is not something that a great number of people who talk about religion would recognize (I mean, yes, you make some valid points, but being religious is much more than speaking language). It is sort of like pricing a gallon of gasoline at $15. You could certainly try to sell it for that much, but given the current economic circumstances, few in the US would actually pay that. Now maybe if ran out of gas in the middle of Alaska and you showed up with a bunch of portable gas tanks, then you may be able to. Or if were a naive person who had never seen what the gas stations are offering gallons of gas at, and for some reason needed to purchase gas from you.

  42. Nate has intriguing and thoughtful perspectives on a wide range of topics in Mormon studies (verifiable truth claim). He ought to write a book (subjective normative claim). I would buy it (verifiable truth claim). Others should buy it, too (subjective normative claim).

    Also, this was a terrific post, Michael! You should keep them coming! (truth claim, truth claim, subjectivity be damned)

  43. Michael: First, if we think that there is a fact-of-the-matter with regard to religious claims, e.g., God has a body, Jesus Christ suffered for our sins, salvation in the highest level of the celestial kingdom requires the ordinances and covenants of the temple, etc., then it is possible to make religious claims that are mistaken. When I say that religion ought to connect us to the something beyond ourselves, etc. etc., I am not trying to offer a sociological or linguistic claim. I am trying to make a claim about how the universe in fact works. Now, I am perfectly wiling to admit that I may be mistaken, that I may be misunderstanding the way the universe in fact exists, that my formulations are muddy and contain a great deal of metaphor and poetry, and so on. What I want to resist, however, is that in talking about religion we are no longer talking about facts of the matter, but rather only about sociology or value judgments or — even worse — personal preference or personal psychology.

    I am not especially concerned about proof or objective knowledge or the like. I think that it is enough to say that one has beliefs and that one can offer reasons for one’s beliefs. I am not interested in making stark distinctions between faith and knowledge and between proof and some other basis for belief. I think that it is perfectly legitimate to make a claim about something, offer reasons for that belief, and then acknowledge that one might be mistaken, etc. Because one is talking about something about which one may be mistaken or where offering reasons is difficult, it does not follow, in my opinion, that we are no longer talking about truth but rather about “value judgments,” which you seem to suggest exists in some nether world of mere social convention, preference, aesthetics, or psychology.

    As for bludgeoning English teachers, I don’t think that this is a sleight of hand. I think that it is a perfectly valid philosophical method to try to understand the basic structure of our thinking by picking a very easy case. You suggest that this is an easy case because there is social consensus, but I think that is backward. I think that there is social consensus because it is an easy case. When we encounter sociopaths or economists that regard bludgeoning English professors to death with Proust as acceptable or laudable, we — quite properly — don’t say, “Gee! Different strokes for different folks!” We might as a sociologist or historian or psychologist want to understand why they think it’s okay to bludgeon English professors to death, we might even sympathize with some of their reasoning once we understand it, and say “There but for the grace of God go I.” Despite all of these reactions, however, we would also — quite properly — regard the sociopath or the economist as just wrong. They are mistaken. They have faulty beliefs.

    For what it’s worth, I am not sure that much turns on whether we speak of facts or value judgements, so long as value judgements are the sort of thing that can be true and about which one can be mistaken. I don’t claim to have any strong or clear metaethical or metaphysical position about the ontological status of value judgments. I simply reject the idea that such judgements are purely a matter of taste, habit, or social convention.

  44. I agree with Michael, which means I disagree with Nate, but not because I think the fact-value distinction is as categorically clear as Michael insists it to be. (I think Brad L. actually has Michael’s number there). No, the problem is that, though Michael I think has pursued the argument in ways that don’t necessarily always hold up, he’s on the right page, whereas Nate is employing a moral logic that I’m not sure anyone who has read anything since 1781 philosophically claim. genuinely accept. Here’s where Nate lays it out.

    You suggest that religion is a kind of language. Language can indeed point us toward something that is beyond ourselves, something great, powerful, and which has the ability to make demands upon us. But it is not its status as language that lets it do this. Rather, it is because there is in fact something great, powerful, and having the ability to make demands upon us to which that language connects us. The mere fact that the language is ours or that it is familiar or that it is an inheritance of childhood is insufficient to warrant that the language will be adequate to the task.

    For these sentences to work, Nate must insist upon an access to a thing—“something great, powerful, and having the ability to make demands upon us”—through a means other than language, other than our own subjective apprehension of it. Obviously, the rhetoric of that sort of Kantian declaration is not at all unusual in Mormon testimony meetings. And Michael allowed way back in the original post that it may really be the case that any number of people making use of that rhetoric (including Nate himself) really do have such access. But if so, it’s worth noting that it’s a rather strange claim.

    Does Nate really mean that this thing which language connects us to is, for him, in no way shaped (or even constituted) by his own language? That the whole anthropology of the embodied subject, with its own particular history and means of situating itself and thereby apprehending the world around it (which, again, is done entirely through language, and hence is, in a very real philosophical sense, an entirely “aesthetic” operation), is completely transcended by this thing—“religion”—that Nate insists upon? In other words, does Nate really believe that if he were born as and grew up as and spoke as Michael, that the Mormon religion that he experiences, as a system of belief and claims, would be EXACTLY the same? Because that is the implication of his idealism: that the only thing that matters as knowledge is the thing that is known, never at all our knowing of it.

    I find all that rather hard to accept. But since I’m not in Nate’s head, I grant the possibility that he really has access to some utterly unmediated awareness. If he does, that would explain why he said that Michael’s definition of religion was incomplete and false. Maybe he, in fact, knows that, and maybe so do many others. But note: it is something HE knows. It is not a thing he is capable of asserting as something other than HIS own existential grasp of the situation, not unless we are going to assume that the history of philosophy and rhetoric ended entirely in 1781 with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and grant universal, categorical normative power to the conclusions of a single rational mind.

  45. I’m too late to include your comment in my above one, Nate, but just for the record, the upshot of my response is that when you conclude…

    I don’t claim to have any strong or clear metaethical or metaphysical position about the ontological status of value judgments. I simply reject the idea that such judgements are purely a matter of taste, habit, or social convention.

    …you’re writing one sentence which is complete contradicted by the second one. To insist that our judgments of values or facts have nothing to do with “taste, habit, or social convention” (and I suppose you’re giving yourself some wiggle room there, writing “purely a matter,” but you provided no such wiggle room in your original responses to Michael above) is a very strong meta-ethical and metaphysical position about knowledge. Own it, I say; maybe you’re right about it. (I strongly doubt it, though.)

  46. Russell: Who said anything about unmediated access to anything? I don’t deny the necessity of language or the fact that our understanding of the world is always mediated through our experience and history. To the extent that this is what Michael is saying in his OP, I have no quarrel with it, and in fact I think that the OP makes this point quite eloquently. However, I understood the OP to be making a stronger claim, namely that our only basis for preferring one language rather than another is the accident of our birth. This stronger claim would make sense if we think that religion is simply an idiom and all idioms are equal, and my point is that religion ought to be more than just an idiom.

    I certainly don’t claim to have had any kind of revelatory or mystical experience in which I became the Transcendental Self or the like. I am not arguing that a moral claim is just like a scientific claim or that either of them can be understood in some unmediated, supralinguistic way. (If anything Michael’s insistence of verificationism and a sharp fact/value distinction suggests that when talking about “facts” and “proof” we can do this. I am actually a bit skeptical of this.) I am just trying to make the more modest claim that religion and morals are the kind of things about which one may be mistaken and about which one may hold false beliefs. I don’t think that you can read the post-Kantian tradition as rejecting the idea of truth or falsehood, only the idea that one has objective or unmediated access to it. I am not claiming, however, that I have objective or unmediated access to anything. I suppose that you could understand my reference to “facts of the matter” as suggesting some kind of belief in unmediated knowledge of the Ding an sich, but this isn’t what I am trying to suggest. Indeed, I have never really understood what would be the point of access to a Ding an sich. I can make all sorts of useful and true claims about chairs without access to the Ding an sich of the chair, and I take Mormonism to be making the claim that God is in some sense like a chair, so we needn’t worry about getting into the realm of the forms or the transcendental self or whatnot in order to know Him.

    I am claiming that when we have disagreements about religion or morals they are not disagreements about taste or psychology, but rather are disagreements about the proper or best understanding of the world. In other words they are the sort of things about which one can be wrong. I realize that you could read the post-Kantian epistemological tradition as suggesting that the very notion of being mistaken about something is an illusion, that we have nothing but language, and the inability to get outside of language means that we have no way of ultimately judging one linguistic formulation as being better than another except on grounds of personal taste or history. This, however, strikes me as a rather extreme conclusion to draw from our inability to get at a Ding an sich. I think it’s fine to say that we see through a glass darkly and that we always will see through a glass darkly but can nevertheless seek truth as opposed to surrendering to subjectivity. This doesn’t require objective knowledge, only a willingness to take the leap beyond solipcism. As for the strength of my metaethical claims, I suppose that it depends on what you mean by “strong.” I am disclaiming a belief in some kind of Platonism or natural law. In that sense, my claim is “weak.” Frankly, however, I don’t actually have a fully worked out metaethical position (or any other kind of position for that matter), other than to reject the notion that moral beliefs are mere expressions of taste or social convention. (Although obviously one can have tastes and social conventions about moral beliefs.) If that is a “strong” claim, then I am willing to own it.

  47. “In the end, however, Michael is right in that no one can tell him what his religious experiences and reasons for remaining in the LDS church should or shouldn’t be and whether or not they are adequate. This just comes off as judgmental.”

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Michael’s personal faith or reasons for faithfulness are wrong or inadequate. I am heartily in favor of whatever keeps one faithful to covenants and serking god. I apologize for anything suggesting this. I do, however, think that conceptualizing religion as just a language is suggestive and insightful but also incomplete and therefore inadequate and mistaken. I might, of course, be wrong about this but when I make the claim I am not trying to pass judgment on Michael’s religious, moral, or intellectual adequacy. I assume that Michael is an intelligent, moral, and faithful man.

  48. “I am claiming that when we have disagreements about religion or morals they are not disagreements about taste or psychology, but rather are disagreements about the proper or best understanding of the world. In other words they are the sort of things about which one can be wrong.”
    “I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Michael’s personal faith or reasons for faithfulness are wrong or inadequate.”
    I agree with both statements. I did not agree with (what I read earlier as) an implication that we can have one or the other but not both.

  49. Kristine,

    I want to believe that familiarity and comfort would not be so important that I would resist learning a new or more difficult language

    This sentiment has long haunted me; because it’s so easily said. While I want to believe that about myself, my actions demonstrate otherwise. I don’t spend the quantity or quality of time experimenting with other religions that our missionaries, our leaders and Alma contend we must invest in Mormonism to reap its fruits. I don’t study their precepts with the same open mind or admire the lives of their heroes with the same benefit of the doubt. I don’t learn their languages or meditate in their fashions. I don’t attend their weekly meetings and patiently hope that a witness will come eventually. If there’s a better language out there, I’m not searching for it.

    No, I reinforce stasis by suggesting relevance of “pioneer stock,” singing about the “faith or our fathers,” and reflecting on the importance of shared faith with my immediate and extended family. I’ve prayed to know that it’s true and accepted any sensation of elevation as sufficient confirmation. Like Michael, I’ve clung to any reason to stay.

    I wonder if we should revere the bravery of the living converts in our midst more than heritage from forbearers that indoctrinates and binds us. When it comes to genuine truth seeking, they’ve put their money, time and social status where their mouths are.

  50. Nate,

    I don’t think that you can read the post-Kantian tradition as rejecting the idea of truth or falsehood, only the idea that one has objective or unmediated access to it.

    I completely agree. Simply because I recognize a truth claim to be something which I believe in part because it is my own (historically, linguistically, etc.), doesn’t mean it stops functioning as a truth claim.

    I suppose that you could understand my reference to “facts of the matter” as suggesting some kind of belief in unmediated knowledge of the Ding an sich, but this isn’t what I am trying to suggest. Indeed, I have never really understood what would be the point of access to a Ding an sich.

    Then my lengthy comment was based on a misunderstanding (not for the first time, unfortunately). My apologies. Though, for the record, your language would suggest that we can apprehend or at least have an awareness of the “thing in itself,” but that it’s kind of pointless seeking after it. My response to what I thought you were saying is stronger: I am doubtful that any definition of “truth claims” which presume that a cognition of the “thing in itself” much serve a rational role is basically incoherent.

    I am claiming that when we have disagreements about religion or morals they are not disagreements about taste or psychology, but rather are disagreements about the proper or best understanding of the world. In other words they are the sort of things about which one can be wrong.

    Again, I completely agree. Appropriate humility before our experiences and the experiences of others should lead us to always reconsider our own mediations. My derived understanding of the world may not comport with your derived understanding, and that should give me pause, and lead me to search through my language and history and community to see if there is a different way of conceiving things. Maybe there is; immanent critique is possible, and happens all the time. Or maybe the experiences I have or others report are so strange to me, but also so persuasive, that I find that I need to whole new language to make sense of it all. I come to feel my old way of mediating the world didn’t work; it was wrong, and I change. Conversions happen too.

  51. “I am trying to make a claim about how the universe in fact works.”

    Such hubris is usually reserved for natural philosophy, or as we’ve been calling it since the 1687 publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica: Physics

  52. Carl Youngblood says:

    Nate Oman, there is still some degree of subjectivity in morality that is widely corroborated and shared, and this morality doesn’t cease to be esthetic merely because it has attained a degree of objectivity within a shared, corroborated system of values. William James points out in “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” (http://www.philosophy.uncc.edu/mleldrid/American/mp&ml.htm) that, given a simple universe consisting of a single sentient being, the desires of that being are exhaustive of the values and duty of that universe. As beings are added to the universe, the complexity of its morality increases, but it is still ultimately based on the desires of its inhabitants and is therefore esthetic in nature.

  53. Carl Youngblood says:

    I should hasten to add that I agree that, within a corroborated system of values, there is some degree of moral normativity that can be appealed to when advocating for one religion over another. However, I still think it is reductionist to deny that aesthetics plays a role here.

  54. I am probably going against perceived wisdom here, but I do read Russian fluently. Being able to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original is simply not essential if one is searching for their answers to the “big questions.” Both were raised in a larger European cultural environment, and were thoroughly conversant in such languages as French and German. It was quite natural for them to think in those languages, at times more natural even than Russian. These “big questions” are what gave them a Western appeal, and this universal aspect means that you will not miss out on a classic like “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” if one reads it in the old, English translation. What you miss out on is Tolstoy’s Russian sound. I’ll say more on that in a minute. Now, Tolstoy himself did not place a premium on original language when it came to sharing his message. Check out the 1908 recording he made (someone uploaded it to youtube). He reads selections from a spiritual, contemplative work of his, and does so in various languages without hint of them being inferior vehicles for understanding his thought. Tolstoy was a pioneer in the creation of modern, literary Russian (especially in expressing the passage of time, and in creating a world of interior reflexion), but this was secondary. He saw himself as spreading universal truths in Russian, not using Russian to convey things that could only be fully grasped in that language. Tolstoy matters most in Russian if your concern lies in that language to begin with. This is where the sound comes in. Tolstoy has his own cadence, one that I find insufferable in his novels, but delightful in his short stories. It affects the ways in which I can express an idea in Russian, an entirely different focus than that in the OP. Chekhov, OTOH, is an author that you cannot readily appreciate without knowing Russian, precisely because his focus is less lofty. His short stories were meant to intrigue and entertain rather than uplift and moralise. They are elegant, witty, and quite frequently hilarious. Wit and humour suffer more in translation than big ideas. To borrow an analogy, it is like taking a spade to a soufflé. One of the greatest Russian novels that non-speakers have rarely read is Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs.” It features the magnificent anti-hero, the swindler Ostap Bender and his travels in search of an elusive treasure. There is hardly a page that isn’t eminently quotable, and it has shaped the outlook of generations. Translation robs you of the sparkling and acerbic wit that makes it so appealing. My point I that languages matters more for the books without global appeal. This I why the analogy does not work for me. The big messages are there regardless of language. You can explore those in any denomination (religion has common, core concerns), if you are not that concerns with authoritative answers.

  55. So, I read most of the comments, got to this point from Nate, and then thought there might be a different way to harmonize/present the point for Michael.

    Earlier, Nate wrote:

    Religion purports to point us beyond ourselves, toward something that is great, powerful, and has the ability to make demands upon us. You suggest that religion is a kind of language. Language can indeed point us toward something that is beyond ourselves, something great, powerful, and which has the ability to make demands upon us. But it is not it’s status as language that lets it do this. Rather, it is because there is in fact something great, powerful, and having the ability to make demands upon us to which that language connects us. The mere fact that the language is ours or that it is familiar or that it is an inheritance of childhood is insufficient to warrant that the language will be adequate to the task. Hence, my claim that to think of religion merely as a language misses something important. It misses, for example, what might separate religion from other kinds of linguistic activity, like nursery rhymes or tax returns.

    It strikes me that this very distinction between language as used to “point us beyond ourselves, toward something that is great, powerful, and which has the ability to make demands upon us” and “other kinds of linguistic activity, like nursery rhymes or tax returns” is actually implied within Michael’s post.

    Because look at the books and authors that Michael discusses in the OP:…Don Quixote, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, and Mann. Even for Michael, what is important about English is not simply that he is most familiar with it, but that through his familiarity, he is enabled to explore “the most meaningful and important things that I have read in my life”.

    So, if I’m reading Nate’s comments correctly, it seems like the way to harmonize his comments and Michael’s OP is to point out that the Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Prousts and Manns and Cervanteses are a crucial part of the analogy, and a crucial part of religion.

    But to be fair, I think that this analogy still therefore works…and perhaps, to push back on Nate (I dunno, maybe?) would be to say that although religion purports to point us beyond ourselves, the key takeaway from Michael’s OP that makes the language metaphor work is that the sorts of things pointing us beyond ourselves can be found in numerous traditions, numerous metaphors, parables, etc., Engaging with the Tolstoys, Dostoyevskys, Prousts, Manns, etc., (e.g., the “great, powerful, that has the ability to make demands of us”) is important, but we may find that we are more effectively able to do so in one tradition rather than another.

  56. Dr_Doctorstein says:

    Maybe Allen is right that the Big Ideas come across just fine in translation. I still think it’s a pity none of us can read the Book of Mormon in Reformed Egyptian.

  57. I disagree completely that the Big Ideas aren’t manipulated through translation. For instance, what is a bigger idea than the claim “God is perfect”?

    Except, what do we really mean by “God” or “perfect”? Surely God is perfect in a way that we can only imagine in a very very limited, abstract way. The same applies if we really admit how little we know about God when it comes down to it. Our knowledge of such concepts are so infinitesimally small that it seems hubristic to pretend we’re saying much of anything at all when we make truth claims about those Big Ideas.

    Absolutely adored this post, btw, Michael.

  58. trevorprice924 says:

    Oh, the term I was looking for is “apophatic theology”, i.e. the notion that the divine is so ineffable that our attempts to define or describe it are naturally going to fall short in nearly every way possible.

  59. Trevor, you will still get the concept pretty well. Tolstoy, for example, was often introducing concepts into Russian, so you won’t always gain that much more insight by the language itself. Reading about European intellectual history would be more helpful in this context.