Saturday, May 21, 2016

Leading astray and erring

This week on her blog Flunking Sainthood, writer and blogger Jana Riess wrote an article about following the prophet, where she made some points about how the president of the LDS Church can make mistakes and it is a fallacy to assume that he can't, which can be read here. In this post I want to accomplish to two things: 1. Define what it means to be a prophet, seer, revelator 2. Show the difference between leading astray and erring.

First, what is a prophet, seer and revelator, or are they just three words to describe the same thing? Answer: They are three different roles which the president of the LDS Church can fulfill if moved upon by the spirit. A prophet, as the Prophet Joseph Smith said, is only a prophet when he is acting as such. What does that mean? It means that he can declare that the Lord has told him something only under certain circumstances, such as when he says "Thus saith the Lord","The Lord told me",etc. If the prophet has not offered this injunction, or made it clear that he is speaking for the Lord and not just expressing an opinion or making an argument, then we are not bound to accept everything he says, although it would be worthwhile to listen anyway because even when not under the influence of revelation the president of the church can still bestow wisdom upon us, which we would be foolish to not accept.

As for a seer, this role is spelled out by Ammon to Limhi in chapter 8 of Mosiah in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. To quote from him:

13 Now Ammon said unto him: I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer.

 14 And behold, the king of the people who are in the land of Zarahemla is the man that is commanded to do these things, and who has this high gift from God.

 15 And the king said that a seer is greater than a prophet.

 16 And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God.

 17 But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
From this we learn: A) Properly understood, a seer will have an interpreter  of some kind to look in and use in this role, although it is uncertain whether or not this is a must or not B) Due to the fact that a seer can look into the past as well as into the future, this role is greater than the role of a prophet. We know that Joseph Smith used this role in translating the Bible, but we do not know conclusively whether or not presidents of the church after him have used this role. Brigham Young at one point showed a seer stone to some saints in the tabernacle, but it is unclear if he simply had the stone or used it.

As for a revelator, as the name implies this means that the president of the church (like any other member) can receive revelation that he is entitled to. The difference between the president of the church and other members is that he can receive revelation for the entire church, while others can only receive it for themselves and for their own stewardship.

Now that the roles of prophet, seer, and revelator have been established, the second question dealing with leading astray and erring can be addressed. It is a common belief that since a prophet cannot lead the Church astray, he cannot err in any great manner. For this reason, some have said the priesthood ban, while a painful thing to deal with, was justified rather than wrong.

This idea of not leading the church astray was talked about by President Wilford Woodruff after the adoption of the Manifesto in 1890. He said
"The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty."
So, here we learn something we often do not talk about. Notice that President Woodruff said that the president of the church would have to attempt to lead to lead the Church astray in the second and third lines of the quote. In other words, the Lord will not allow a president to willingly deceive the church, but it does not follow that a president of the church cannot err in a major way. For instance, it clearly was wrong for Brigham Young to ban blacks from being ordained, but Brigham Young sincerely believed that they shouldn't be ordained; he was not attempting to deceive anyone. So while he erred and led the Church off the beaten path, he did not willingly lie about something and then present it as truth.

The bottom line is that God has given us prophets, bishops, other leaders, scriptures, prayer, and other methods to help us in our mortal journey. All of these things are useful and will help us when used properly. Where we often get off path is when we attempt to make these gifts into God and assume that because he is infallible the gifts are as well. Within a sphere, these gifts are beautiful and helpful, but like any tool they must be used in the proper way to be useful, otherwise they can be destructive.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A favor from Hume

A week ago I wrote a post about why I admire and revere David Hume, which can be read here. Among the things mentioned were how I came to know about Hume, what I read of his, and a brief sketch of his life. There was one thing about him that I had planned to mention but failed to. Thought I would mention it here.

From about the age of 5 through about age 13 I had terrible necrophobia; fear of death. I am not sure why this was the case, it may have had something to do with my best friend dying at around age 7. I remember when my mother told me that my friend had passed away that I laughed and said this is not a sad thing; now she can walk and talk again and be in the presence of Jesus. I still believe that today, but perhaps after the funeral I was awakened to the idea that eventually I too would die and someone would have to break the news to someone else. I didn't want anyone to have to go through that, and more importantly I didn't want to die.

Eventually, like my hydrophobia and acrophobia, I came to the conclusion that there was no sense fearing death because fearing it or not would make no difference; I would go the way of all the Earth (all includes "me" so it turns out). So my extreme fear of death was abated, but every time I heard of a person dying or had to attend funeral it would come back, although only briefly. However, after reading a certain letter, it left me for good.

Here is where Hume comes in. After returning home from my mission I went through a period of questioning the existence of God through the influence of the so-called New Atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins) and bought an anthology called The Portable Atheist which had been compiled by Hitchens. In it are writings of atheists thinkers of the past (who are far superior to the New Atheists, proving new is not always better), such as Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, and so forth. Hume's essay Of Miracles and selections from his Natural History of Religion are included, but the piece relevant to this situation was not written by him but rather about him.

In the selection called An Account of My Last Interview with David Hume, author James Boswell, who was a good friend of Hume's, recalls the last time he saw Hume who was at that time in what we would now call stage four of stomach cancer. After sitting down and greeting Hume, Boswell commented that he had heard it rumored that Hume was not a believer in Christianity at all; Hume confirmed this, saying he had lost belief in religion after reading John Locke and Samuel Clarke (which undoubtedly shocked Boswell since Locke and Clarke were both religious men). Bringing himself together, Boswell asked Hume if the thought of annihilation (not existing in any form) frightened him. Hume replied "Of course not Mr. Boswell; it is a most unreasonable fancy that we should live forever." Despite his being in pain and realizing that death would soon come, Boswell described Hume as "cheerful". This struck me as odd, since when most people I have known have heard they are dying their first inclination is to panic.

I thought for a long while how Hume could possibly have been joyful when he knew his end was immanent. Then one day it came to me that Hume had no reason to panic or worry because he had accomplished in life what he had wanted to and realized that death was nothing to fear. I then thought about my own life, and realized that even I had died right then, for the most part my life had been a happy one. I had enjoyed good health, had been blessed with a strong mind, had good friends and family, and had had many good life experiences up until that point. What was there to be afraid of? From that moment on, I never feared death again, and as the Prophet Joseph Smith said after his first vision "I could rejoice with great joy."

I owe alot to Hume, but this one crosses the bounds of philosophy. I plan to thank him in a future state for helping me get over this fear (yes, Humeans can believe in an afterlife, Hume does now:)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Why I Revere David Hume

Nearly anyone who knows me as well as patrons of this blog will know that I love, admire, and revere Scottish moral philosopher, economist, and historian David Hume. I often quote him; on Facebook, on Twitter, in arguments with people; case and point he is my go-to-guy. However, I have never in written form expressed why I revere him, so on the 305th anniversary of his birth I thought it would be a good day to write about and honor him.

For my readers who do not know much about Hume I will give a little biographical sketch, but I highly recommend the Ernest Campbell Mossner biography The Life of David Hume as well as Hume's autobiography My Own Life (which can be read for free here).

David Hume was born on May 7, 1711 (April 26 OS) in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father passed away when he was two, and he was raised by his mother who early on in life called him "extremely wake-minded", which meant that he tended to daydream rather than that he was unintelligent. He went to school at what is now the University of Edinburgh, but was denied a professorship there and later at the University of Glasgow because he was seen by the general community as an atheist (even though he himself writes to the contrary.) He would go on instead to be a military counselor, a librarian, an assistant on a voyage, a tutor, and a man of letters. He died on August 25, 1776 of stomach cancer. 

Hume's most famous writings include A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, The Natural History of Religion, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals and The History of England. While the Treatise is his best known and most quoted work, it was not met with instant success; according to Hume it "fell dead-born from the press." None of his other works fared much better, The History of England being the lone exception; this became the standard history of England during its time and brought Hume great wealth and respect. However, he did say that of all his writings that the second Enquiry was his best work and the one with which he wished to be judged by.

Hume's approach to philosophy was empiricist; he believed knowledge comes through sense experience, so in many ways he was a scientific thinker. Along with this he was also a skeptic and a naturalist, meaning that he did not entertain the idea that a transcendent world existed. His thought covers areas such as what is now called philosophy of mind, cognitive science, neuroscience, moral psychology, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, and ethics. His influence in all these areas is considerable, with experts in those fields who endorse his views or carry on with them called "Humean".

While he was not extremely well received in his own lifetime, Hume had a great effect on Immanuel Kant who said that Hume "awoke me from dogmatic slumber" (although Hume would guess Kant never read his work), as well as other later schools of philosophy and continues to be well respected by academics to this day. Some philosophers and schools of thought greatly in debt to Hume (by their own admission) include John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, William James, pragmatism, logical positivism, Karl Popper, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein.

Now that I have briefly sketched the mans life, I will now talk about what Hume has meant to me personally. I had never heard of him prior to my mission, but while I was there I knew I wanted to study philosophy upon returning home. As my luck would have it, a friend of mine was home teaching someone who had majored in philosophy in college, and a few weeks after returning home I met with him. He told me that if I wanted to study philosophy, that I needed someone as a philosophical guide, someone to kind of look up to. He mentioned that as an undergrad he had a friend named Don Garrett (who is now the chair of philosophy at NYU, the highest ranked department in the United States) and that Garrett had been smitten by Hume every since he read him. I went home and looked Hume up on Wikipedia (has it's glitches, but it is a great starting point most of the time) and was intrigued by what I read. I decided to go on Amazon and get one of his books, the first one I bought was Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. This book would go on to have a great effect on me, more on that later. I would go one to get Hume's complete works after that.

The reason I revere Hume could perhaps be considered twofold. First, I am very impressed with the man himself, I love his attitude and his style. He had the characteristics of a person that could be a good friend; a superior intellect, a wit, and a fierce loyalty to people. His willingness to defend his views even despite them costing him professorships and other appointments shows his dedication to the Socratic principle; following the evidence wherever it may lead. His sense of humility and disappointment that he expresses in places such as My Own Life show that while he did achieve fame during hi slide, he was disappointed that his work had been so misunderstood by his comrades in Scotland. Simply put, Hume was more than just a great philosopher; he was a great man.

Secondly his work itself. First, Hume is simply a joy to read, being called "the most important philosopher to write in English". He writes so well that even if you disagree with all of his ideas, you will enjoy having read him. His empirical approach to philosophy, his skepticism about his own findings, and some of the things his findings undermine also have had a great effect on me. For instance, Hume wrote in the Treatise that since knowledge comes from experience and we cannot observe ourselves, that the self is an illusion and we just have a bundle of perceptions about the self. His problem of induction is also one that has left me dumbstruck from time to time because while I sometimes wished he were wrong, I always end up concluding he was right.

By way of personal anecdote, before I read Hume I had questioned the idea of a finite God after reading Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways. However, after reading Hume's Dialogues and his argument that given the imperfections in the universe and our experience of design, it is more likely that several finite God's designed the planet rather than one infinite God. I had never thought of it that way, but after reading the argument and considering it, I came to the conclusion that Hume was right and remained in the LDS Church rather than joining the Catholic Church.

While I could go on and on about him, it will be sufficient to say that Hume has made me the man and thinker that I am today. Like Hume, I am a staunch empiricist, naturalist, and skeptic. This way of thinking has carried over to how I approach religion, politics, friendship, and obviously philosophy itself. I consider Hume, along with Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Smith Jr,, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin to be among the 5 greatest men who have ever lived. I thank God daily that my friend introduced me to Hume and his thought; my life will never be the same because of it. God be thanked for David Hume.