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Finding divinity within mythology

August 21, 2009
Speaking about mythological religion...

Speaking about mythological religion...

I’ve spent a lot of time studying things that don’t interest me. I’m not sadistic (or maybe I am ;3), but I reason that even though the things themselves don’t interest me, I’m interested by the fact that these things interest others. So, I want to figure out what it is about these things that interests others (but somehow escapes me).

I’m not quite sure if I’ve gotten the true believing Mormon mindset down or not… But at this point, I’m beginning to see that I’m not even so much interested in knowing the difference between the true blue believer and my nonbelief.

But that’s not the only kind of belief.

Now, I feel like I have to look more carefully at those who believe with an allegorical or mythological framework. These people note that their sacred texts may not be historical or literal at all, that their institutions may be objectively false, but still hold them sacred and divine.

This interests me. Not because I’m interested in actually believing in God or in following a religion with such a framework (nope, that still doesn’t interest me. I just don’t have that in me), but because I’m interested in understanding how this framework works for others. I haven’t read books like Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which I’ve heard are good works on this kind of stuff, but I guess I’ll still have it somewhere on my book list (that list is getting a bit backed up :3 [feel free to add to the list].)

Today’s post is partially contemplation from my series about John Dehlin’s “How to stay LDS…” (what drives him to persist..?), but more directly, it’s a response to Seth Payne’s (I’ve written about another article of his earlier…) “Why I’m a non-Believer, But Still a Mormon.” This essay seemed to be the one of the first to begin making sense out of allegorical or mythological approaches to religion.

But I’m still not personally persuaded…

I think I can begin to understand people like Seth. (Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong.)

  • Individual has strong impression of God, divinity within some part the church (through spiritual experience.)
  • Crisis occurs (whether historical, theological, or whatever).
  • Individual feels faith is irreparably lost because of literal, historical, and theological “breaking points,” but…
  • individual also remembers strong impression of God and divinity within the church.

So it seems to me that those who are able to “stay LDS,” so to speak, anchor things by the strong impression of God, no matter what else. So, all other things may fall away (the literal, historical, theological “breaking points” that led to crisis) because the individual simply sidesteps them with allegorical, metaphorical, and subjective interpretations.

For a quote from Seth:

I suppose the bottom line is: I believe in Jesus.  Jesus has been part of many of my spiritual experiences and whether or not Jesus was actually divine, born of a virgin, and was resurrected, He is part of my spiritual connection to God and I have on many occasions felt my burdens lifted through his sacrifice.  In other words, whether or not Jesus *actually* was any of those things I mentioned above – He is still real to me and provides comfort when I struggle and lifts me up when I am down.  In my new found faith, meaning does not necessarily require an association with the actual occurrence of a particular event.  To put it more dramatically – even if Jesus were a completely fictional character who never existed in reality (a position which I certainly *do not* hold) – He still has significant meaning in my spiritual life.


Armed then, with the realization that God can speak and move through ideas and myth – and not simply through actual occurrence, I began to take a second look at Mormonism.  With such an understanding, all of the doctrinal and historical “problems” of Mormonism disappear – as all these problems deal with issues of actual occurrence and history…does it really matter if Joseph Smith had the first vision or merely reported having a vision?  No!  The real value of the first vision is in how God can speak to me through this narrative of the first vision and what I can learn from it.  The same holds true for the Book of Mormon.

So…the Book of Mormon, Bible, etc., instead of being accounts that stand or fall based on how well they actually align with the facts, become tools and models which stand or fall based on how well they train or attune one to commune with the spirit. (This pragmaticinstrumentalism,” coincidentally, is addressed in other posts from Seth.)

And this last part makes me sweat a bit…I like pragmatism; I have no problem with the differences of subjective experience and reaction. But I feel ill-at-ease to give this chain of logic my stamp of approval (even though I approve its composing parts). It seems to me too that there are a few problems:

1) One size doesn’t fit all. The “trainer” or “instrument” that helps one find “divinity” won’t work for all.

2) It seems to be mixing terms. Divinity, in my opinion, demands objective existence (retreating to it as wholly subjective seems like a copout in the debate). Payn denies that Smith’s possible “borrowing” from his immediate surroundings for the BoM would invalidate the divinity of the book, because Joseph has expanded upon these things to create a beautiful work, and this reasoning troubles me. Smith may have created something that Payne perceives as beautiful or divine, but this doesn’t mean the Book of Mormon is divine or that divinity exists objectively. (Does beauty objectively exist as its own entity somewhere, in some form, just because we perceive things as beautiful?)

Finding God through imperfect radios?

Finding God through imperfect radios?

This is tricky, because I’m guessing that Payne, Dehlin and others aren’t saying that they subjectively perceive something they just happen to label as God. Rather, I’m guessing that these individuals believe or hope that God is a being that — somewhere, in some form — objectively and *truly* exists, even if it’s just a radio station that they are tuning into with (admittedly) imperfect radio instruments. If this is so, then critics’ claims that the church or the Book of Mormon or whatever else simply is not what it says it is is irrelevant…because with the instrumentalist view of these things, realism doesn’t matter as long as the instruments properly do their jobs.

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  1. Hi Andrew,

    I think you hit upon something significant with your observation that we call things beautiful but do not believe that beauty itself exists as an independent entity. That’s much the way I perceive divinity. If I’m to be completely honest, I think it’s highly unlikely that “divinity” has its own objective existence. But I also have no problem calling the Book of Mormon “divine” in the same way that I call a sunset “beautiful”. Like “beautiful,” “divine” is an adjective that describes a composite of evocative characteristics that I can’t really put my finger on. To some extent we can scientifically describe what makes something beautiful and what is happening when we experience the sensations associated with the perception of beauty. But this does not invalidate the experience or rob it of subjective value. It’s the same for me with divinity.

    I also think that even if “divinity” does not objectively exist in the sense that I used to believe in, it may well exist in another sense. There is an indisputable connectedness of all knowable reality, for example. Certainly we are more aware of this connectedness at some times than at others. Might this not be what we mean by divinity? Does it not bear a resemblance in some respects to the constructs we used to worship? And if I choose to willingly shroud it in mystery and mythology because such clothing makes the experience more powerful and more profound for me, who can blame me?

  2. …we call things beautiful but do not believe that beauty itself exists as an independent entity. That’s much the way I perceive divinity.

    Well, doesn’t this change everything? Rats.

    But this does not invalidate the experience or rob it of subjective value. It’s the same for me with divinity.

    to be clear, I’m not saying that anything is robbed of subjective value. But, I think that subjective values is distinct. I mean, when we perceive something as beautiful, we usually have a great humility about this. We don’t use that experience as a measuring stick for others. (example: love. Even if you fall in love with someone, you don’t “expect” others to fall in love with the same person or hold it against them if they didn’t see what you saw in that person.)

    If everyone saw divinity in such a context, then that would be great. But I get the sense from many that they see it as something that is a persistent quality that *can* be used as a measuring stick for others. So, if you don’t find divinity from my book, then there is a problem of the sort that if you can’t see the two finger I’m raising in front of you, there’s a problem. So, when people say, “This book is divine,” it seems to me (perhaps I’m putting words in Seth’s or John’s mouth) that they are describing a quality intrinsic to the book (that is personally perceived), not JUST a personal perception.

    Additionally…it divinity is subjective, I think it can be sourced to people, not objects. If humans weren’t around to observe things…nothing would be beautiful. Beauty exists because of people projecting it onto things. But I know many people who want to say that things like “value,” “morality,” and “divinity” don’t just exist because of us, but rather even if we weren’t around, they would still be here with the stars and gravity.

    In response to your last question, I think it has two answers. IF our worship constructs are instruments (judged by how well they do their job), then your shroud of mystery and mythology (which indeed does make the experience more powerful and profound) is not to be blamed. BUT if our worship constructs are supposed to be real explanations (judged by how closely they pertain to reality), then the shroud of mystery and mythology is only blameless *if* they best conform to reality. If we’re agnostic, we can say, “Well, I don’t know.” But what if we distinctly don’t believe our myths are true? Can we simply put down realism for instrumentalism?

  3. Hi Andrew,

    First of all, I don’t use my experience as a measuring stick for others, and I think any of my fellow liberal religionists who do so have sort of missed the point. But I have to say that I haven’t met any who do so. Most of us are well aware that our views are subjective and not universal, though we’re also quite willing to share our views with anyone else who decides they are appealing.

    I also don’t claim that beauty, morality, or divinity have an objective existence apart from humanity. In fact, that view (which philosophers call “moral realism”) strikes me as more than a little silly. Of all the theistic groups of which I am aware, only the Mormons are moral realists (and not even all of them). Most evangelicals accept either a “divine command” or a “utilitarian” ethical theory (maybe both at the same time), and I can’t imagine there are many religious liberals who are anything other than utilitarians. That’s what I am. For the record, so are most atheists, I think.

    You asked at the end of your post whether we can simply abandon realism for instrumentalism. Probably some of us can’t, and I don’t blame such people. For me it was a long and gradual process that is not likely to work for everyone. And actually, even if atheists cannot accept the idea that ideas of “divinity” may be retained out of respect for their usefulness in producing a certain powerful kind of experience, I suspect that some of them may still have this sort of experience under a different name.


  4. That’s why I say to you, “Well, doesn’t this change everything? Rats.”

    Yet I’m still not sure about the anecdotal statistics (although I’m just now combating with my own anecdotal statistics). In my experience most theists I know (who are not liberal, nor Mormon), even if not moral realists, are moral universalists, because of their belief in divine command theory. I’m wondering if the universalist aspect (which is the part that gets people to use things as a measuring stick) is “worse” than the realist aspect.

    As for your last part, I actually am fairly convinced (because of some atheists) that realism cannot simply be abandoned for instrumentalism…because of exactly what you described. I feel kinda in the middle on it…recognizing the value of instruments, but also hoping for more “accurate” terms.

  5. I agree with you that the universal aspect is the worst. We don’t really have problems with Hindus and Buddhists because they don’t make universal demands. The problems we do have with Hinduutva fundamentalists are actually a reaction *against* the universal demands of Muslim and Christian missionaries eroding Hindu culture.

  6. Interesting post.

    It was actually on account of a Faith and Reason uni class that rid me of my Rortian pragmatic theory of truth because I realized that people like Plantinga and the Reformed Epistemologists utilized such a theory to rationalize their belief in God as “basic” and non-founded, but rationally warranted.

    I realize that the same wishy-washy pragmatic instrumentalism that allowed me to stay within negative atheism rather than positive atheism allowed the Reformed Christians to rationalize their obviously irrational belief system. I am still not yet a positive atheist, but I feel that negative atheism (merely lacking a belief in God as opposed to claiming there is no God) is still the most legitimate and authentic philosophical stance, although I can’t say it is the “most rational” thanks to Plantinga and Rorty.

    But I feel as you do Andrew; that I am still working out better vocabularies for thinking and talking about such matters helps me sleep at night given I have the rest of my life to come to a conclusion (or not).

  7. Gary,

    I agree with you on negative/weak atheism as opposed to positive/strong atheism. However, even though I disagree with Plantinga and others on arguing their belief as rationally warranted, I’m not too concerned until the tone gets aggressive (which, generally, claiming a position is rationally warranted has a good probability of being aggressive — because it gives the implication that other positions are *not* rationally warranted). So, I guess I’m looking more for ideological humility, more than anything else.

  8. Who freaking cares about being rational.

    As long as you behave yourself, no big deal in my book.

    And there are always ways to get people to behave themselves without attacking their myths.

  9. Andrew,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my essay. I think you last paragraph sums things up quite nicely and is a fair description of how I view the existence of God.

    I can appreciate your hesitance to give my particular brand of pragmatism your “logic stamp of approval.” In many ways, I would say that my believe in divinity is either 1) outside the bounds of logic and rationality or 2) completely irrational and illogical. I am comfortable with either.

    My view is that the determining the objective existence of divinity is impossible. An experience with God is something that is completely subjective and, much like other emotions or “internal experiences”, is impossible to adequately demonstrate to anyone outside one’s own self. Yet, the experiences I have had with the divine are just as real as the love I feel for my family.

    Faith a continuum that runs between hope and certainty. My faith leans far to the hope side. I hope God exists. I hope that there is a meaning and a purpose to life. I hope there is something better beyond this world.

    Is it possible that my experiences with the divine are all part of an evolutionary process designed to keep me sane? Certainly. However, this proposition is just as indemonstrable as my faith (hope) in God.


  10. Seth Payne,

    Well, when I use the term “logic,” I mean it in a sense of internal consistency based on a system of rules. So, you wouldn’t want to be outside the bounds of logic — because this would imply that you don’t hold to basic ideas of causation, of things following after another, etc., It would be self-defeating to the core.

    I generally try to avoid “rational” (until it gets brought up in conversation), because I understand that a common use of “rational” is so dry, unfeeling, etc., that it doesn’t seem to me to be any kind of desirable. I think rationality can include subjectivity (and in fact does), but when it does, it does have a bit of a different quality.

    So for example, your comment about your experiences being as real as the love you hold for your family — this makes sense to me. But then again, I wouldn’t say that the love you hold for your family (or that I hold for mine) represents a subjective experiencing of something that is external and objectively existent. Rather, this is something that is within me, and which I project onto things (like my family).

    I guess Chris Smith is different (and maybe you), but my experience has been that many people who recognize the divine would instead say that it’s not just something within themselves…it’s something outside of themselves that exists regardless of themselves that they just “tap into” or “get into communication with”.

    For example, with your discussion on faith, hope, and certainty, it seems to me that you have to have faith because you’re trying to make a leap between internal and external (correct me if I’m wrong). You don’t need faith to say that internally, you have experienced x feeling — because the subjective feeling is enough to be proof of the pudding. HOWEVER, faith is necessary to make the leap in trying to explain that feeling in an external sense — e.g., that it may be indicative of a God that exists objectively.

    It seems like you’re not hoping that there is meaning and purpose to life, because I think you yourself can make that for yourself. Rather, I think you’re hoping that there is *objective* meaning or *external* meaning, so that you can feel that meaning is “legitimate,” (in case you don’t trust yourself enough). And your last hope sums this all up: you hope it’s something “better beyond this world.”

    So, what I’m questioning is not your internal experiences (I trust that you can gauge your own internal experiences.) Rather, I’m questioning if it makes sense to export these internal experience to a hope in a specific external universe (e.g., a hope in something better beyond this world), especially since I think that part of this hope is a remnant of upbringing (which you’re trying to say it doesn’t matter if it is based on actual event or not)

  11. Is holding on to a remnant of upbringing necessarily a bad thing, so long as one is aware of it and recognizes that it is subjective and non-normative? I understand the desire to be a self-made man, but family fealty has to count for something, too.

  12. Chris, when the association implicitly produces negative effects, I’m thinking it’s a bad thing.

    I don’t want to get too “idealistic” and “unrealistic” about this (but it’s probably too late), but I can’t help but feel that the LDS church as an institution benefits from having someone even nominally identify with the church (even if their identification is idiosyncratic and non-normative). Because when someone identifies as part of a group, most people will internally mark that as +1 to a particular conception of that identity they have in mind. So, even though the person is non-normative, he often doesn’t get the chance to elaborate that before the other person has already given their mental nods.

  13. Andrew,

    I see what you are getting at. Indeed, I don’t believe that I can objectively “know” what is beyond my experiential senses. Certainly, the reason I hope for something “better beyond this world” is because I was raised in a Judeo-Christian framework. Were I Hindu I would likely describe this hope in much different terms.

    Thus, I do not place my hope in a *specific* conceptualization of what lies beyond. Rather, I have hope that some reality, currently unobservable and unknown to me, does indeed exist — whatever that reality looks like.


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  1. Things that don’t bother me about the Mormon church « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. Narrative calculus and bliss « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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