Canon and Culture: The Scriptures Made Me Do It!

Fundamentalism is the belief that all that the scriptures and revelation say are to be taken as factually accurate. This view is clearly problematic, but I’d like to address its cousin, foundationalism. Foundationalism admits that the scriptures are not factually accurate in all things (though they may be in some), yet argues that they still give us clear moral, ethical, or doctrinal guidance. The scriptures, when properly interpreted, are the secure foundation for our doctrines about the “important” things, like the nature of God, human beings, gender relations, sin, etc, if not science and history. This modernist notion is deeply problematic.

Mormonism actually arises as a critique of biblical foundationalism, which is one reason that it is surprising to find such ideas a part of Mormonism today. The idea was that the text itself was always indeterminate, multivocal, and mediated by human limitation. The solution to this problem was supposed to be direct revelation, a kind of end run around the problem of interpretation. The problem, of course, was that revelation simply provided more texts, imperfect texts that had to be constantly revised and reinterpreted in light of the even newer revelations and texts. Every new bit of data had the potential to radically alter all that had come before. Revelation was given “after the manner of the language of men,” and we realized (or should have) that there was no immediate access, only interpretation upon interpretation. We essentially always selectively interpret our texts because it would not be possible to do otherwise; the texts themselves are not consistent.

The notion of foundationalism, which seeks to recover a secure, eternal kernel of truth in what are recognized as human texts and revelations privileges the “text” as the primary authority, while “interpretation” is secondary. Text is to nature as interpretation is to culture. Scripture and revelation are “given,” while interpretation is degenerative and imitative. Scripture and revelation are the noumena, while interpretation is the phenomena. However, to claim that one is simply basing themselves on the “text in itself” is just the phenomenal realm masquerading as the noumenal.

Of course, let us not lose cite of the fact that the texts and revelations are themselves not only produced in culture, but also their status as authoritative is a cultural product. The ways that we come to recognize one text or person as more authoritative than another is a decision, a communal decision in many cases, but there remain (even in Mormonism) several ways of settling on the “authoritative” that compete with each other. (The number of recent academic articles, newsroom statements, and other forms of discourse which seek to answer the question “what is Mormon doctrine” points to the anxiety of indeterminacy on this question.) The very selection of which texts are authoritative is already a choice of culture, not an immediately accessible access to nature. A canon is already an interpretive act, one which excludes certain options. But this act of limitation has the result of producing an infinite variety of readings. As cultures limit their food options (canon) from among the massive amounts of edible foodstuffs in nature, at the same time they develop cuisine that prepares these limited foodstuffs in an infinite number of ways (interpretation).

As foods do not contain their own recipes, texts do not contain their own interpretations. Texts don’t tell us anything. They can’t actually speak or command or instruct. They can’t even tell us how to read them. We read and interpret according to the ways that we have been socialized to read and interpret. Canon is no more than a closed list. Once you have a closed list, you need an interpreter (hermeneute). He or she chooses from the accepted range of options so that it mediates the communities real needs and the objective lists. These methods can and do change. We read scripture today in ways entirely different from the first century, or the 19th century for that matter.

What readings are logical or possible is determined by the community that reads them. There was a time when the idea that the Bible was a pro-slavery text that justified white supremacy. There was a time when the idea that those of African descent were cursed was considered a perfectly “scriptural” idea. These readings were possible because those who read the text had certain ways of reading that brought them to those conclusions. The kinds of questions we ask, the acceptable methods for obtaining answers to those questions, and the range of possible answers we see to those questions has changed dramatically in the past century, and will continue to change. The kinds of historical questions we ask, let alone questions about power, ritual, archeology, gender, and ethnicity have led to all sorts of creative new interpretations. The same can be said for earlier hermeneutical methods like allegorical interpretation or typological readings. The sorts of methods that are developing now and which will develop in the future will produce yet more new ways of reading scripture.

Isn’t what I am saying a kind of anarchic relativism? Even if it was (and it isn’t), such an argument doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entirely accurate assessment of how some readings come to be established as authoritative, and others then supplant them. Such an accusation is an attempt to persuade by fear, an argument which is particularly egregious since it is those who have been most sure of their readings of scripture who have produced the most violence as a result of their foundationalist assumptions.

My argument is that interpretations are “good” when they are accepted by a community of interpreters. This means that not any reading is equally as good as another, and that there are ways of determining that one interpretation is better than another. But the source of these rules for evaluating interpretations comes not from the texts being interpreted, but from the social constraints in which interpreters exist. Such rules then reflect the society and culture that uses them, and such rules often privilege those in power in those societies. We should be especially critical of interpretations that are invested in the values which privilege patriarchy, racism, colonialism, oppression of the poor, and the maintenance of the status quo. Such theologies and interpretations are political, despite protestations to the contrary. There are no foundations, and no guarantees that we won’t use the texts unethically, but we can at least be sure that foundationalist claims themselves are unethical and disingenuous, so at least we can avoid that.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT: “There are no foundations, and no guarantees that we won’t use the texts unethically, but we can at least be sure that foundationalist claims themselves are unethical and disingenuous, so at least we can avoid that.”

    Just want to be clear. Are you applying this to me and calling me unethical? I’ll wait for your response before commenting further.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT: “Such an accusation is an attempt to persuade by fear, an argument which is particularly egregious since it is those who have been most sure of their readings of scripture who have produced the most violence as a result of their foundationalist assumptions.”

    Sorry, I just couldn’t hold back. Attacking fear mongering by fear mongering just made me laugh out loud.

  • Clark

    The idea was that the text itself was always indeterminate, multivocal, and mediated by human limitation. The solution to this problem was supposed to be direct revelation, a kind of end run around the problem of interpretation. The problem, of course, was that revelation simply provided more texts, imperfect texts that had to be constantly revised and reinterpreted in light of the even newer revelations and texts.

    I like the way you put this. Nibley made a big deal of this as the basis for Mormonism, albeit with a more Platonic twist. I did a reading club on Nibleys views of this years ago. Many of his writings on this are found in The Ancient State.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake@1,
    No, I don’t intent to call you unethical. I think certain approaches to scripture are. I also don’t think, as my comment says, that any of us is free from unethical readings of our texts. It is a risk we all face, and one that we should all strive to avoid.

    Blake@2,
    Yeah, I’ll give you that one. That is a little silly on my part, but there is something about the power that some readings and hermeneutical methods have on people that does contribute to violence, which isn’t that hard to prove.

  • Clark

    My argument is that interpretations are “good” when they are accepted by a community of interpreters.

    I just don’t think I can go that far. After all I do think texts make demands that prevent us from treating them as purely open. One can do better or worse with evidence and be guilty of neglecting texts one should have dealt with. That’s true whether or not a particular reading is accepted or not.

    It’s true this can be cast in terms of rules of the community. And if one says they are rules judged by members of the community then one’s adopted a very Wittgenstein view of interpretation. Reading is a kind of game. As sympathetic to this game theoretical account I might be I think there is something more beyond the community that places a demand on us as we read. Put an other way I don’t think ethics can be cast purely in terms of the rules and referees of a community.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Clark,
    “I do think texts make demands”

    I recognize that this is a metaphor, since you know that texts can’t actually do anything, but the metaphor masks the exact point that I am trying to make, that people do things with texts because texts cant do anything.

    “there is something more beyond the community that places a demand on us as we read.”

    Like what?

  • Clark

    Well it’s not exactly a metaphor. I think that phenomenologically there is a moment with the text where we feel a demand to understand it, to take it seriously, to engage with it. It’s a kind of Levinasian moment of Ethical demand where we recognize that not only can the text not do anything. It’s not that people can’t do anything with texts – I think they can. It’s that they can’t do anything legitimately. The issue is really what makes something legitimate. One can point to some sort of eternal universal rules for interoperation or you can point to a more Levinasian moment where instead of an eternal rule we merely get a demand.

    As for what this demand is, it is what is beyond the face. Just as when I encounter a person and I recognize there is something more beyond my mere representations and that this something more makes a demand on me I think this is true with texts. Indeed I think it’s within the field of texts (i.e. a general semiotic) that we see ethics in its most broad sense. That is this is an issue of the phenomenology of semiotics.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    “phenomenologically there is a moment with the text where we feel a demand to understand it,”

    And how would you demonstrate that this is not a culturally produced way of reading? Understand it in what way? Again, no one claims that their reading is a misunderstanding. The question is what counts as understanding, according to what rules.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    First, thanks for clearing up that you aren’t calling me a liar and that if I engage in dishonest readings of a test or interpretations of a doctrine, you have already joined me in hell. I find little to be gained by engaging in conversation with anyone whose beginning premise is that I am dishonest and so everything I say is false. I also find little comfort in joining you in hell.

    I’ll begin by echoing what Clark said. This is a thoroughly Wittgensteinian position — as such, it has all the strengths and weaknesses of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. But I’m guessing you already self-consciously knew that. However, it isn’t a bad thing to have a hermeneutic that is an instance of the very limitations it claims all texts suffer.

    You are long on assertion and short on demonstration or evidence to back numeorus rather strident claims. Your entire post is shot through with strident and questionable claims that need to be demonstrated — but that is just the nature of a blog perhaps. But look at all of these empirical claims asserted as given: “Mormonism actually arises as a critique of biblical foundationalism, … The idea was that the text itself was always indeterminate, multivocal, and mediated by human limitation. The solution to this problem was supposed to be direct revelation, a kind of end run around the problem of interpretation . . . their status as authoritative is a cultural product.”

    You even make claims that what is logically possible is a cultural and not a logical construct (against which the Kantian in me screams — oh yeah!): “What readings are logical or possible is determined by the community that reads them.”

    Here are some of the many problems I have with what you take to be a self-evident approach:

    1. This view denies the very faith that is the basis of the faith community which adopts the texts to be interpreted. The source of meaning and interpretation is not revelation or inspiration, but community standards that themselves have no basis other than the forms of life of the community. You see this already clearly in our post: “Isn’t what I am saying a kind of anarchic relativism? Even if it was (and it isn’t), such an argument doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entirely accurate assessment of how some readings come to be established as authoritative, and others then supplant them.”

    I suggest that you address this argument because you realize that it is the logical conclusion of your view — and I suggest that it follows from your view no matter which community standards you accept. It is a thoroughly humanist and a-theistic reading of texts that have infinite play and no meaning other than community practices which have no other basis than the forms of life of the community themselves. It is therefore a circular explanation that begins and ends with anthropology and human invention — and nothing else.

    2. This view is therefore reductionist in the same sense that closed materialistic naturalism is reductionist. Everything is explainable by anthropology. To see what a text means, study the community and what it values. This aligns well with your prior post on HM that argues that HM means whatever the political interests of the LDS authorities wanted it to mean to battle those evil feminists. The feminists used the doctrine of HM to subvert those evil misogynist brethren and meant whatever they wanted it to mean to further their feminist agenda. It follows that the the truth of whether there is a HM doesn’t matter; what matters is its political impact on the community.

    That is a prostitution of doctrine as I see it. I would guess that you don’t really affirm the HM doctrine except as it serves the values you privilege in this post — primarily opposing the status quo. Change for change’s sake. What makes your values better? Well, the community of course because there are no real values beyond that. Who is to say the community’s values of always subverting the status quo hold any water? Of course your values subvert the very community you seek to interpret. But if the community is the source of such values, then subverting the status quo is impossible because the community just is the status quo broadly intperpreted. This view is therefore self-defeating.

    3. Your underlying assumption of forms of life as ultimate giver of meaning is an elastic theory that cannot be empirically tested (even though it purports to be essentially empirical in nature) because nothing can count against it. In this respect it is like psychological theories that purport to explain human behavior by reference to some central motive like: “everything humans do they do because they want to get tired.” it is therefore a view that purports to represent the way things are just actually done without any proof. Long on assertion, always lacking in evidence.

    4. Your underlying assumption is just an article of faith — or lack thereof. It adopts the view that everything and all meaning is ultimately explained by forms of life of a community. Any test of that view ultimately would be just another expression of the same forms of life — or of competing forms of life by an outsider. However, what is really at issue is not the truth of the matter as those contending think; but merely whose forms of life will prevail in the public arena.

    5. If the texts mean whatever a community determines is good for them to mean by whatever forms of life serve that community as determined by that community’s form of life, by whatever relative standards it adopts, it entails that there is no basis outside of community of interests to be promoted. But if texts can mean anything at all in their infinite play, then they really have no meaning in themselves at all — which you outright admit. What we are interpreting is not texts, but merely expressing our political interests and forms of life. Really?

    Thus, by some community standard, Gen. 1:2 means “and Lady Gaga sang a good song;” and by another it means “the spirit is the mother in heaven.” I disagree: There are limits to what meanings a text will bear. The words have a semantic range that delimits meaning. That semantic range can be determined by looking at the context of the discussion, the usage in the community and so forth. But given your view what Gen. 1.2 means is ultimately not about what a “text” means — it is about which political interests will prevail. So what Gen. 1.2 really means is that “the HM brooded on the waters as the creator God” — and it means that because it makes women equal to men and does away with that evil patriarchal order that defines the status quo. If this method were honest with itself, no one would buy its readings because they are always a manipulative subtext arguing about issues that really aren’t based upon or about the text at all.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT #8: “And how would you demonstrate that this is not a culturally produced way of reading?”

    Well, no one could. This is a rubber theory that expand to explain everything. It cannot be disconfirmed because the disconfirmation would just be another instance of a culturally produced reading. But that isn’t a good thing about this approach, it is just an article of faith that supplants the faith of the community itself.

  • Clark

    And how would you demonstrate that this is not a culturally produced way of reading?

    A demand for a response isn’t a reading. The reading is the response and of course it is culturally situated.

  • Clark

    To add: to be culturally situated is not to be exhausted by culture. One can always transcend ones culture and say something new. (Otherwise cultures couldn’t change)

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: “One can always transcend ones culture and say something new. (Otherwise cultures couldn’t change)”

    Ah, that is how the Wittgensteinian theory is disconfirmed. But then how would you know what you take as new wasn’t just a cultural interpretation already embedded in the culture? After all, a judgment of what is “new” requires a cultural interpretation.

  • Cognito

    I would like to see an opponent of the original poster’s methodology deal with the historical problems that, to me at least, seem to convincingly demonstrate the reality of culture and, yes, politics in determining the acceptable limits of scriptural interpretation. Justification of African slavery is only one tiny example in a sea of Christian history where scriptural understanding always seems to reflect the culture of those interpreting it (though it often takes an outsider’s perspective to recognize it – of course WE, with our superior knowledge, would never misinterpret scripture as grossly as our predecessors!)

    From a faithful LDS perspective you have to deal with obvious examples of textual interpretations that go far beyond or are opposed to what the text would seem to “demand” of us (Job 38:7 on premortal life and 1 Cor. 15 on the degrees of glory come to mind), and there are questions like blacks and the priesthood. I don’t see how it is anything but self-evident that culture and politics fundamentally determine interpretations, regardless of where revelation fits the equation.

  • Clark

    Blake (13) but if any apparent change in culture could be seen as already latent within culture that means the culture is so infinitely expansive that saying something is culturally determined is almost meaningless. That is there becomes no difference between what is fully open and not determined by culture and what is determined by culture. To say something is cultural is thus to make a difference without a difference in such a scheme.

  • http://www.lifeongoldplates.com/ BHodges

    Isn’t what I am saying a kind of anarchic relativism? Even if it was (and it isn’t), such an argument doesn’t mean that it isn’t an entirely accurate assessment of how some readings come to be established as authoritative, and others then supplant them.

    TT, I’m interested to see you explore this point further.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a ton of time today, but I wanted to point really quickly to three ways of reading the scriptures that have changed dramatically in my own life time:
    1. The question of whether the USSR is what was prophesied in Revelation
    2. The way we speak about the “Lamanites”
    3. The role of “grace” in LDS theological discourse

    The “text” was the exact same before and after these changes in the way the text was read, yet all three represent the result of cultural change as the basis for the change in reading.

    Change is what my theory explains, not the problem it must face. Change is the problem that foundationalist readings must face because they posit a stable meaning that resides in the text.

  • http://boaporg.wordpress.com WVS

    TT, I think modern Mormonism has tried to explain its foundationalism in terms of a prismatic text. As though readings have a kind of Platonic presence in the text. That combined with privileging the present. But I could be wrong.

    I like how 20th century text theory circles the wagons. Hard to get out without epistemological leaps it seems. Or something. Anyway, always enjoy it when you pass through.

  • Clark

    TT (17), I think the first two are problematic examples since each is an example of pretty vague claims. The text gives no indication who Lamanites are – there are some ways to narrow the claims with a very close reading but there’s little ‘obvious.’ And as for the USSR the prophecies there are ridiculously vague and open.

    Grace is perhaps a better example, although there I’d argue the theology hasn’t really changed in Mormon thought, merely the terminology. i.e. we use the word grace more. There has, since Pres. Benson directed members to focus on the Book of Mormon and since Millet’s excellent push on Grace, been much more focus on grace. But it’s pretty easy to find the concept throughout Church history as something important. (Let’s not get into a tangent over this though – I just think that it ultimately isn’t worth having that discussion if the example isn’t a clear one to your interlocutors)

    WVS (18), I don’t see that. I do think that LDS have fairly consistently seen the meaning of the text in terms of what God inspires us to do.

  • http://www.smallsimple.wordpress.com Eric Nielson

    I think I am liking Kierkegaard a little bit more. Subjectivity is truth. When we look at the text as an object only, then we run in to many of the potential problems expressed. But I think most Mormons rely on the subjective spirit as the key to interpretation. By the power of the Holy Ghost we may know the truth of all things. How well we do at separating what we want from the spirit is debateable. But I think we claim our foundationalism through the spirit.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: I’m agreeing with you. My response to you in #13 is an ironic reductio. Sorry if I mislead you. Here is how I agree. The fact that there is anything new at all in culture shows that what we have is not merely a regurgitation of what TT calls “cultural interpretation.” The fact of the novel and the new actually does disconfirm Wittgensteinian “cultural modes life” as the basis of all interpretation.

    However, all that the Wittgensteinian does in response is once again say that that intperpretation of what is new is itself culturally conditioned. My point is that such a view is vacuous and explains exactly nothing because it can be stretched as a mantra to seemingly explain without providing any light or explanation.

    Let’s take Cognito’s example in #14 of the Vision of the 3 degrees of glory as an “interpretation” of 1 Cor. 15 “determined by culture.” What does it mean to be determined or explained by culture? I have no idea what Cognito means by “determined,” but if Cognito means “determined” in a strong sense like causal determination, then literally everything about the Vision is explained by the prior culture. The natural laws conjoined with all prior cultural influences causally entail exactly and only this Vision inj D&C 76. Who would buy that as explanation? It is based on the Article of Faith of causal determinism.

    Let’s say that what Cognito merely means that prior culture “fully explains” the Vision in D&C 76 as an interpretation of 1 Cor. 15. What does that mean? How does that explain it? My view is that it means the same thing as fully causally determining the Vision – it is just a naturalistic determinism all over again. Let’s say that what Cognito means is that culture just “conditions” the Vision as an explanation of 1 Cor. 15. What does it explain? I contend, absolutely nothing. We can look at precedents like Swedenborg’s view of heaven (as many have done without any evidence that JS even knew of Swedenborg). Do these precedents “fully explain” or “condition” the Vision? What we are looking for is an explanation that IN PRINCPLE doesn’t include God or revelation as part of the explanation. That is the denial of the very basis which JS claimed as the source of the Vision given to him and Sidney Rigdon in 3d technicolor.

    So I agree that the new disconfirms TT’s assumptions and that “cultural interpretation” as an explanation explains exactly nothing. It is an assumption that in principle rules out divine revelation and it is nothing more than an article of faith.

  • http://boaporg.wordpress.com W. V. Smith

    TT, ditto on BHodges 16. Clark, mia culpa. I meant to address something slightly different there, but explained it poorly. Eric, that’s the limbo that exists around Mormon texts. And by the way, I agree mostly. Must. prepare. for. class. now.

  • larryco_

    “Such an accusation is an attempt to persuade by fear, an argument which is particularly egregious since it is those who have been most sure of their readings of scripture who have produced the most violence as a result of their foundationalist assumptions.”

    TT: I think you are on absolute solid ground with this statement and the examples from history are too numerous to count. It is not “a little silly” at all.

  • Clark

    Blake (21), I can’t speak for others but perhaps it’d be better to simplify the discussion and avoid some of the philosophically interesting edge cases. Let for practical purposes just say that a text’s meaning relative to a culture are the reasonably plausible ways to read a text within that culture.

    Thus a Jew familiar with the various pseudopigraphal texts about heavenly ascents with 3, 7, 10, 12 or more heavens might read 1 Cor 15 in terms of such texts. Even if it wasn’t necessarily what Paul intended it seems like a assumption about how his audience would interpret the text.

    I suspect that’s what some people are getting at. Relative to the Old Testament then this gets at the issue that most of Israel’s neighbors, especially in Pre-exilic times, had a pretty similar set of beliefs only with both the Father (YHWH) and then the son God having wives or consorts. There’s lots of books on this I’m sure you’re familiar with. So the argument would go that if we are to read the text in terms of its time we have to be aware of that feminine quality.

    Now the problem is that the OT is a composite heavily edited and redacted text. So of course the beliefs of the post-exilic community matters and perhaps matters more. And by then I think it safe to say that much of the community was in strong opposition to many of the beliefs about its neighbors to the point of repressing such elements in its own texts. So that makes interpreting the text somewhat complex. Further there was a move towards strict monotheism and arguably a more abstracting of the nature of God than what most Mormons are comfortable with.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT and Layrco: Sorry, but if you think that what religious folks did was over a mere interpretation of scripture, then I disagree. If you think what they did was worse than what Pol Pot and Stalin did, then I disagree again. I won’t defend violence of any nature — but that is hardly the natural or necessary outcome or result of interpreting scripture. In fact, I would say it was more the prostitution of scripture in the service of some political end — or some manipulation of scripture to achieve power and wealth — that was the very problem; and that is the very problem I suggest we can and should avoid in reading scripture.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: “a text’s meaning relative to a culture are the reasonably plausible ways to read a text within that culture.”

    I would say that JS’s greatest moments were precisely when he broke with reading the texts and scriptures given what was held to be a reasonably plausible way of reading in the culture in which he resided.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    This discussion has developed in a number of important ways, and I thank all the commenters for the excellent, thoughtful contributions. It is hard to know where to intervene, and what the outstanding issues are. I want to address a few loose ends in the discussion.

    Blake @9

    “It is therefore a circular explanation that begins and ends with anthropology and human invention — and nothing else….This view is therefore reductionist in the same sense that closed materialistic naturalism is reductionist. That is a prostitution of doctrine as I see it.”

    The alternative analytical approach that you offer is some unspeakable methodology (see the other post). Whatever it is, it seems to be an appeal to something outside of language and human interpretation. You believe that you have access to some utterly obvious understanding of the way things are (you just can’t tell us how you got there!). The appeal to transcendence might convince you that your interpretation is correct, but it is certainly not the basis for a shared epistemology.

    “I would guess that you don’t really affirm the HM doctrine except as it serves the values you privilege in this post — primarily opposing the status quo. ”

    That is a guess that you have offered, and one that I have explained is not the case. Again, we are back to your same stale accusation that my interpretation privileges certain values, while you offer an interpretation free version of the truth that is not embedded within historical, or political concerns. It is a little hard to believe that you seriously think that your position is not a political one since in the very same claim your interpretation excludes other “political” approaches. That, dear friend, means that your position is a political one.

    “Who is to say the community’s values of always subverting the status quo hold any water? Of course your values subvert the very community you seek to interpret.”

    Well, I don’t think that “always subverting the status quo” is quite what I have advocated. I have suggested that we think about the divine in term that are aware of and informed by the symbolic and practical implications of those representations.

    “Your underlying assumption is just an article of faith — or lack thereof.”

    Well, yours is too! (Except mine is a well accepted anthropological, sociological, historical, and religious studies axiom).

    “There are limits to what meanings a text will bear.”

    Of course! That is exactly what I am saying! But I am saying that the source of those limits is not the text, but the rules of interpretation that decide what kinds of things are acceptable.

    “But given your view what Gen. 1.2 means is ultimately not about what a “text” means — it is about which political interests will prevail.”

    This is a perfectly good test case, and it proves my point, not yours. The fact is that Gen 1:2 has been interpreted in the history of the text probably thousands of different ways. We have examples where God is considered to be an evil being, where the creation of the world is a material entrapment of souls done by an ignorant lower deity, where the “wind” is the Holy Spirit, Christ, Wisdom, where the “waters” represent the realm of Satan, fundamentalist views about the literalness of creation, or spiritualizing readings that see this as an allegory of some sort, we have advocates of creation ex nihilo and those that see a materialist universe, we have readings that see this chapter as the creation of the forms, while the next chapter is the creation of matter, and we have the Book of Moses 2 which offers another reading that is interested in God’s ontological priority, and Abraham 4 which adds in new, alliterative readings…shall I go on? In your view, we all read that text and know exactly what it means, but this understanding of how reading works empirically fails.

    “by some community standard, Gen. 1:2 means “and Lady Gaga sang a good song;””

    Here you go with that fear mongering I predicted would happen. Perhaps such a reading would be possible, but you haven’t explained what the logic of such an interpretation would be, just asserted that it is possible. If you really want to prove that my argument entails this reading, then you have to provide an example of what kinds of interpretive techniques would entail such a reading, not just assert it.

    “So what Gen. 1.2 really means is that “the HM brooded on the waters as the creator God” — and it means that because it makes women equal to men and does away with that evil patriarchal order that defines the status quo.”

    Blake, is this reading really all that problematic as a reading? I’m almost surprised that you raise Gen 1 at all because the LDS reading of this text is so idiosyncratic, and not one that your average reader would assume is obvious, especially since we have 4 different versions of this, none of which are the same, in LDS tradition. Let’s take the common alternative that probably most Mormons accept- that this text describes the Holy Ghost moving over the unformed universe. Is this reading any less problematic than the one you posed? Such a reading makes a number of clearly identifiable interpretive moves, none of which is constrained by a reading of Gen 1:2. First, it identifies the “spirit of God” in the Mormon understanding of that term as a disembodied male soul. Second, it assumes that the same 7th c. BCE term God (elohim) refers to the same construction of God that we have, as a divinized, gendered human being. Third, that earth being without form and void describes a materialist creation in a cosmology that is similar to ours, such as a heliocentric solar system where the planets are just other balls of mass similar to our own with no intrinsic divine message or map to the heavenly realm. Fourth, that the “darkness” refers to the devil (D&C 121:4, footnoted in the LDS standard works as the explanation of what the darkness is)….shall I go on?

    The fact is that the LDS reading of Gen 1:2 is not a result of what is in the text, but a series of interpretive moves where the terms in the text signify things in our own construction of the world. When LDS readings identify the “spirit of elohim” in this text with a female divine figure, they play by these exact same rules. It makes all of the same interpretive moves above, except the first one. Well, it actually accepts the logic of the first one, that divine beings like the Holy Ghost are gendered either male or female. This reading suggests that in a gendered divine realm, the male Holy Ghost can’t be meant because the term for “spirit” is a feminine term. Now, if you want to argue that the “spirit” here is “really” the male “Holy Ghost” as we know it today, you are making an interpretive choice to actually IGNORE the semantic range that the text has in favor of a reading that suggests that even though the term is feminine, we are really talking about a dude. That is a reading that is NOT inherent to the text, but rather a political and cultural presupposition imposed on the text that excludes the presence of female gendered persons (and female gendered nouns!) from the text in favor of an all male cast in the creation of the world and human beings. (Kinda gay if you ask me, but whatever floats your boat.)

    Now, any of the four interpretive moves that LDS make for that verse are not inherent to the text, and are obviously not accepted by the vast, vast majority of readers of this text. I am a Mormon, as are you, and we generally interpret the text in this way in a devotional context because those are the rules of that community, not because the text forces us to or has imposed some limit on us. At the same time, the rules are not set in stone, and they can (and do) change. So we are left with a choice of either choosing your interpretation that is possible only if we already think that we know who that “spirit” is and supply that meaning to the text, excluding females, or we can choose an interpretation that sees some ambiguity in this term, and by Mormon rules of interpretation and assumptions about the divine realm, suggests that perhaps a female figure was a part of creation. Neither is constrained by the text, and the latter reading is only constrained by present community rules which exclude such a possibility not because of the text, but because of assumptions about what is possible in creation.

    And this is another example of how my theory explains historical changes in interpretation, and yours doesn’t.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT: “You believe that you have access to some utterly obvious understanding of the way things are (you just can’t tell us how you got there!).”

    Of course I believe that I can receive revelation (and I have). That is standard LDS doctrine. But you are just dead wrong that I have provided some “obvious understanding” that I derive from revelation as a basis for interpretation that you should adopt. Show me where I attempt to do that. This is just a misunderstanding. I cannot convey to you what I know by the spirit — but I don’t present it as a basis for you accepting any interpretation from me. If you believe otherwise, then show me where I REMOTELY suggest that I have an “utterly obvious” interpretation.

    Moreover, your tu quoque response is not an answer the circularity problems. Your position is circular — and you don’t do anything to redeem it.

    TT: “It is a little hard to believe that you seriously think that your position is not a political one since in the very same claim your interpretation excludes other “political” approaches. That, dear friend, means that your position is a political one.”

    Again I believe you miss this. To suggest that we should not allow our political agendas drive interpretation of texts is not to offer a political interpretation of text. Your pan-political stance us its own self-fulfilling prophecy since anyone who suggests that not all interpretation is necessarily politically driven is therefore somehow driving a political agenda. That is nonsense and a pretty obvious question begging non-sequitur.

    TT: “Well, yours is too! (Except mine is a well accepted anthropological, sociological, historical, and religious studies axiom).”

    The tu quoque defense again. Two wrongs don’t make you right! Even if you have the entire academy denying that revelation could be a part of the explanation — driven by their own unsupported faith in closed naturalism (i.e., no possibility for God in principle as a matter of ideological driven insistence) shouldn’t be a basis for a faithful LDS hermeneutic. What you don’t have behind you is the careful exposure of this type of unsupported and controlling assumption from either philosophy or the revealed gospel which more than suggest that revelation has to be considered as a basis of novelty and one of the determinants. Your godless assumption won’t square with that position.

    RE: interpretation of Gen. 1:2 — the history of interpretation shows that the attempt to understand the text is not necessarily either limited political agendas. And BTW, that you interpret “and Lady Gaga sang a good song” to be fear mongering is just nonsense — unless you have a phobia for really bad vocals. You suggest that there is no basis for this reading. Exactly! There is no infinite play in a text regardless of which community you may exist in.

    TT: “The fact is that the LDS reading of Gen 1:2 is not a result of what is in the text, but a series of interpretive moves where the terms in the text signify things in our own construction of the world.”

    If “the LDS reading” is not a result of the text in some sense, then it isn’t a reading of the text at all. What is “the LDS reading of the text”? Is there some set or authoritative reading of Gen. 1.2? I am unaware of any. When LDS scholars discuss it they usually note the semantic range of the spirit hovering above the waters just like Jewish and traditional readings. Is there some reading of “spirit” that says it is the HG rather than just the (or “a”) spirit in the sense of God’s power? I think that you are just mistaken that there is a reading or even a set of readings of the text of Gen. 1.2. I’m LDS and I certainly haven’t and don’t parse the text as you suggest — neither does Daniel Peterson or a number of other LDS that I could name. Just who are you referring to that establishes the male reading of the text?

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Let me add that I think it is your interpretation of Gen. 1:2 where the spirit is somehow a female deity or female presence in God that is anachronistic. The spirit is the power of God moving on the waters. The Book of Moses interprets it as the spirit of “the Almighty God.” In the Book of Abraham, the spirit brooding on the waters is “the Gods”. Both interpretations are well within accepted translations and concepts of pre-exilic and post-exilic Jewish thought. Neither suggests that the spirit is a distinct male deity. One interpretation makes it God’s spirit or power and the other the spirit is joint spirit of the council of Gods (which of course precludes a “male” spirit). Neither is a distinctive Christian interpretation of the spirit.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake,
    We’ve probably stated our respective arguments as well as we can, and it is clear that we work with different understandings about epistemology and the nature of feminist hermeneutical critiques of foundationalism. I do want to address a few lingering points:

    “But you are just dead wrong that I have provided some “obvious understanding” that I derive from revelation as a basis for interpretation that you should adopt…show me where I REMOTELY suggest that I have an “utterly obvious” interpretation.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this denial, since you seem to have been arguing that your interpretation of texts and traditions is the only “logical” one supported by history, a reading of the texts, science, logic, and a bunch of author authoritative sounding assertions about why your understanding of HM is right and “feminist political” readings are wrong. Without multiplying examples, you saying the other thread that your interpretation: “isn’t a political statement but a reading of the texts and an assessment of what I believe is entailed about what has been stated in scripture and revelation.” Here, you use the language of entailment based on what is “stated.” You have persistently insisted that your interpretation is different from others that are clouded by “politics.” What exactly is my misunderstanding?

    “Your position is circular — and you don’t do anything to redeem it.”

    There is no redemption from culture, and I’m not looking for one. And I am not sure that I trust claims to transcendence of culture. This happens to be a perfectly acceptable LDS teaching. “We shall see that he is a man like ourselves. That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there.” (D&C 130). Culture is all there is and all there ever will be–and it says it right there in the text.

    “the history of interpretation shows that the attempt to understand the text is not necessarily either limited political agendas.”

    Aha! We might have a break through, or at least a point of confusion. I am not suggested that interpretations are driven by “political agendas.” This is your accusation. Perhaps that is a point of confusion. I am saying that interpretations are political. Rather, I have said that interpretations play by certain rules, and that these rules are the result of culture (not something so narrow as a “political agenda”). Your reading which excludes HM from being a part of creation in Gen 1:2 is based on an arbitrary rule of interpretation that females were not a part of creation, therefore Gen 1:2 cannot refer to a female character. Your conclusion is not a “political agenda,” but one that is still reflective of certain political interpretations.

    “You suggest that there is no basis for this reading [of Lady Gaga]. Exactly! There is no infinite play in a text regardless of which community you may exist in.”

    Not exactly. I said that if YOU see this reading as a result of my understanding of how interpretation works, then you need to offer an explanation of what kind of community, and what kind of rules used in that community, would produce such a reading. I’m content with the number of interpretations of this passage that already exist to demonstrate my point. But, now that I think about it, perhaps I could follow the methods of the Bible Code and come up with something. But then again, it is not impossible to imagine that at some point in the future a community of readers would think that the Bible was talking about Lady Gaga. Oh wait, they already exist! Just google Gaga and Bible prophesies and you will come up with all sorts of interpretations that do think that the Bible is talking about Lady Gaga. At minute 14 in this video, this dude calls her “the Great Whore” from Revelation: http://hearkenthewatchmen.com/article.asp?id=475

    It is not hard to imagine that at some point, perhaps soon, someone will identify the “darkness” with Gaga, or come up with some numerological Bible Code method of interpretation. Perhaps some of her defenders will counter this and come up with other texts that support a pro-Gaga biblical interpretation.

    The notion of infinite interpretation doesn’t mean that any random string of words constitutes an equally valid interpretation. Rather, it means that interpretation will always exist, that there will never be a moment of fixed, absolute meaning, nor that every possible interpretation will have been exhausted. And that is because the conditions of interpretation are always changing. New interpretations of scripture and revelation will continue to appear as time goes on. That is what we call “continuing revelation.” We thought of it before postmodernism.

    “Is there some set or authoritative reading of Gen. 1.2? I am unaware of any.”

    I find this claim striking since you are the one suggested authoritatively that certain readings of Gen 1:2 are or should be excluded.

    ” When LDS scholars discuss it they usually note the semantic range of the spirit hovering above the waters just like Jewish and traditional readings. Is there some reading of “spirit” that says it is the HG rather than just the (or “a”) spirit in the sense of God’s power?”

    Yes, the footnotes in the official LDS edition of Gen point me to “TG God, Spirit of” to explain who the Spirit of God is. In the heading of that TG entry, it points me to see also “Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, Light of Christ” and cross references dozes of Holy Spirit. I think your suggestion that there is some LDS tradition that identifies this “Spirit of God” with “a spirit” or “God’s power” ridonculous, given the translation as “Spirit,” (as opposed to “wind”), the capitalization of the passage in the official scriptures, and the footnotes. Sure, you are LDS and you might interpret it differently. So, LDS feminists interpret it differently from you, (and they are LDS too!). Both (or all three) are readings that might persuade LDS readers, which is my point.

    “Just who are you referring to that establishes the male reading of the text?”

    Hmm. Well, besides the easily provable position that LDS tradition identifies this passage as referring to the Holy Ghost, who is understood to be male, I assume that you have been establishing the “male reading of the text.” If not, what have we been arguing about?

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT: “I’m not sure what you mean by this denial, since you seem to have been arguing that your interpretation of texts and traditions is the only “logical” one supported by history, a reading of the texts, science, logic, and a bunch of author authoritative sounding assertions about why your understanding of HM is right and “feminist political” readings are wrong.”

    Look closely. I don’t give an interpretation. None of my comments remotely represent or disclose my view. I simply point out that there are NO texts that claim to scripture or revelation from prophets. If you believe that statements by GAs and quasiGAs or feminists are an adequate basis for belief, then of course there is adequate basis for belief for something about the HM — but I deny that they are even addressing the same subject matter when speaking of the HM between them.

    TT: “Hmm. Well, besides the easily provable position that LDS tradition identifies this passage as referring to the Holy Ghost, who is understood to be male, I assume that you have been establishing the “male reading of the text.” If not, what have we been arguing about?”

    No it doesn’t. See #29 which was probably posted while you were writing.

    But I’ll even grant the footnotes by Bruce McConkie are shot through with anachronistic and interpretations informed by LDS cultural readings. So?

    In any event, thanks for the great conversation. The Wittgensteinian position that you offer is an intelligent and sophisticated view — it just makes assumptions that LDS ought not grant in my view and it doesn’t work as an explanation. In particular, it precludes the new and novel in interpretation and fails to see how texts shape communities rather than merely being shaped by them.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake,
    I thank you too for the excellent discussion. I don’t mean to belabor any points by drawing out a longer response, but I did miss your 29 while I was writing, and perhaps we can come to at least some agreement on a few more points.

    @29
    “Let me add that I think it is your interpretation of Gen. 1:2 where the spirit is somehow a female deity or female presence in God that is anachronistic. The spirit is the power of God moving on the waters.”

    Sure, but I think that we are on dangerous ground if we are going to adopt anachronism as the standard for what kinds of readings are authoritative in LDS thought. As you well know, the BOM is incredibly anachronistic, as are the PoGP, Moses, not to mention reading Christ into the OT. But I’d go further. The identification of Yawheh with Elohim was anachronistic when it was first done. This is a great standard for doing history, but I don’t think history needs to be determinative of interpretation (nor, as I’m sure you expect, do I think that historical criticism offers a secure foundation, nor do the fictions of recovery and authorial intention). Yet, we have interpretive precedents for identifying figures that are in the bible (not least of which is identifying the Mormon notion of God with the biblical notion(s) of God), such as seeing Jesus as Jehovah, Elohim and Jehovah as father and son, or even the “spirit of elohim” as the HG. We aren’t bound to historical readings in our interpretation (though they may inform them, such as Wisdom being present at Creation in Prov 8 as a basis for identifying female deities in Creation). What I’m not saying is what a passage definitely means, because the ways for arriving at that meaning are what I am discussing. I think that we have lots and lots of ways in our Mormon interpretive toolkit for identifying female characters at creation.

    “The Book of Moses interprets it as the spirit of “the Almighty God.” In the Book of Abraham, the spirit brooding on the waters is “the Gods” One interpretation makes it God’s spirit or power and the other the spirit is joint spirit of the council of Gods.”

    Hmm. Just to be clear, Moses 2:2 says “Spirit of God” and Ab 4:2 says “Spirit of the Gods.” While I congratulate you on a creative reading, I’m not sure that the differences in Moses and Ab from Gen 1:2 are as significant textually as you think. Neither offers more or less support to the identification of the “spirit” with the HG, as LDS traditional reading has done. You’re not appealing to the text to make your interpretation that the spirit is “power,” but to something outside the text, like other ancient texts. FWIW, “power” is a pretty obvious interpretation of the term here, and not one that many historical-critics of the text would accept, so that interpretation is pretty anachronistic too.

    @31
    “I don’t give an interpretation. None of my comments remotely represent or disclose my view. I simply point out that there are NO texts that claim to scripture or revelation from prophets….I deny that [feminists and GAs] are even addressing the same subject matter when speaking of the HM between them.”

    Not to belabor this point, but this claim IS an interpretation. How do you still not see that?

    “[TT's approach] precludes the new and novel in interpretation and fails to see how texts shape communities rather than merely being shaped by them.”

    I will grant that the latter is certainly something that I would challenge, but I don’t have any idea why you think that my theory that culture shapes the rules of interpretation somehow implies a static view of interpretation. It is just the opposite since this understanding of hermeneutics that I am working with BEGINS from the notion that interpretations change and seeks to explain that phenomenon by arguing that interpretation is a cultural act, unconstrained by the notions that a text is the static source of stable meaning.

    But, I fear that we are just repeating ourselves on these points. With that, I am going to bed. Good night!

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    TT: “Culture is all there is and all there ever will be–and it says it right there in the text.”

    Does this “culture” that “is all there is and ever will be” include disclosures from a being that knows all things? If the text is the basis for this truth about culture, what gives this text authority to establish that culture is all there is without transcending mere culture because it reflects a privileged basis of knowledge?

    If the answer to first questions is no, then the text lacks any authority to establish the fact for which you cite it. If it is just an assertion based on our culture, it couldn’t establish this fact. If the answer is yes, then “culture” is not all that there is because it includes an all knowing being who transcends our culture or any particular culture. These questions are at the very center of our differences I believe. In my view, if the answer to the first question is “no,” then I ask, “why bother with the text”? I suppose that the answer is to overthrow interpretations that you don’t like and support those “interpretations” that support your own preferences regardless of what the text actually says. But that would be an ultimate disregard for the text and merely a total disregard for and prostitution of the text to serve your own purposes.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com TT

    Blake, no time to respond in full now, but I will link to an old post I once sketched out on the subject:
    http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/04/that-same-sociality/

  • http://Blakeostlet.com Blake

    What happened to going to bed? Are you typing in your sleep? That’s just not fair because some of us need at least 4 hours of sleep.

  • Clark

    Blake (33), I think he’s making a point commonly found within general semiotics. I’m actually pretty much on TT’s side in that. It doesn’t mean there can’t be relatively stable interpretations of texts. Just that what stabilizes them isn’t any one particular text. Neither the text nor the author can dominate interpretation in such a way as to stabilize texts.

    As for whether there is a being that transcends all cultures, I don’t think I can agree with that either. Such a claim might make sense for a more Platonic conception of God but not for an essentially embodied God. He’s undoubtedly more flexible but that needn’t mean he transcends culture.

    I might add that, given your theology of God, that seems an odd claim to make as well since it seems to me you limit God quite a bit more than I think most Mormons would be comfortable with.

    The implication of this view of texts is indeed that texts can’t stabilize meaning. However the other forces we bring to play in making an interpretation can. That’s where a realist can have stabilized textual meaning due to how our acts of measurement are stabilized by the forces of the universe itself. However such forces are themselves not text even though we know about them only as text. (i.e. any measurement is really the creation of a text and our understanding is also a text)

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: If you don’t believe that God’s knowledge transcends our cultural horizons and limitations, then either: (a) you have a definition of “culture” so broad that it doesn’t mean anything like what TT is asserting (and in fact is rather meaningless since it doesn’t mean a human culture); or (b)you don’t really believe in God but in a being so limited in knowledge he doesn’t know any more than we do — and such a being would be no God.

  • http://blakeostler.com Blake

    Clark: “That’s where a realist can have stabilized textual meaning due to how our acts of measurement are stabilized by the forces of the universe itself.”

    Now you’ve lost me. Just what “forces of the universe” stabilize the anarchic infinity of interpretation of texts suggested by TT?


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