Saturday, May 28, 2011

Intellectual Rhetoric and The Way of Ignorance

Over the past couple of years, I have watched a colleague of mine (I‘ll call her Lisa) first alienate herself from her peers and then received a sadly deserved demotion. She is a bright and friendly scientist holding both a Ph.D. (in the biological sciences) and an MBA. These credentials have served her well in many ways - helping her move up the corporate ladder - but ultimately they have not been able to save her from these recent embarrassments. One of her major stumbling blocks has been the failure to recognize the dangers of intellectual gamesmanship.

Lisa loves a good conversation and is witty. She grasps the meaning of arguments readily and loves to discuss hypothetical solutions to existing problems. She is able to quickly find her way to the limits of known solutions and then propose a course of action that makes intuitive sense. She is a valuable innovator because of this. Lisa is also competitive and, although this is often valuable, in certain circumstances it is a real handicap.

You see Lisa savors verbal victories - to have her solutions carry the day. Unfortunately her hypothetical solutions are sometimes wrong. In fact, in hindsight, it is easy to see that most of her solutions have been at least partially wrong. Over time these errors have accumulated and Lisa has lost credibility. She can still be convincing but she is no longer trusted or taken seriously. She has learned to excel at what I will call the art of intellectual rhetoric, but has failed to show sound judgment. Unfortunately this combination has cost her (and those who work with her) dearly.

Now I realize that scientific arguments are not normally categorized as rhetorical. Scientists, after all, are expected to follow where the data lead them, not to be convincing advocates of any particular cause. In a word, scientists are expected to follow dialectical methods, not rhetorical ones. The two approaches are quite distinct. And yet I choose the phrase intellectual rhetoric in spite of its apparent contradiction because I fear that it is no longer just an anomaly. More and more intelligent people are fitting its description.

In some ways the phrase may seem redundant. Thomas Sowell’s recent book Intellectuals and Society, for example, understands intellectuals to be primarily those talented social scientists that lack an adequate grounding for their proposed reforms. Unlike the data generated by the hard sciences that can be empirically tested, many social scientists propose striking social changes based on studies that cannot be confirmed in the real world. Advocates that fall in to Sowell’s categories certainly fit the description of intellectual rhetoricians.

There are others like Lisa, however, that are not social scientists per se but who are beginning to trouble our society using the same methods. Everywhere we turn there are new “experts” advocating changes that sound appropriate, using assumptions that are expected to be universally true. Biologists, for example, are now telling us that human evolution has fooled us in to believing that families are necessary, that giving to others is an ennobling thing, that God is real. These arguments become quite convenient in the hands of passionate and persuasive intellects seeking change - and all in the name of an unbiased scientific inevitability. We would be wise to use caution when confronted with these convincing “experts“. Many, if not most, of their arguments contain flaws. We may not know what they are right now, but they exist nonetheless. And like Lisa’s many mistakes, they will end up costing us dearly.

Ironically the most reasonable path to pursue given such uncertainty is to follow what Wendell Berry has called The Way of Ignorance. Berry’s title can be a little misleading. He is not suggesting that we intentionally make uninformed decisions. On the contrary, we should inform ourselves as best we can, especially if our decisions are momentous ones. What Berry means by The Way of Ignorance is that we need to act with the awareness that even our best knowledge is probably not perfect - that even with the best data and with the best intentions, we may still be wrong, at least in part.

A few hundred years ago many believed that the sun revolved around the earth. They were wrong. Less than a century ago the brightest minds in Germany (basing their ideas on evolutionary theory) believed that “ethnic cleansing” was justifiable. They were wrong too. Half a century ago many biologists believed that complex biological information develops (and has developed) by chance. They are also most certainly wrong.

Yet it is not the fact of being wrong that is the problem. Most of us are at least partially wrong on our thinking much of the time. It is when we refuse to acknowledge our limitations and arrogantly insist that we are completely right that we blindly set the stage for disaster. This is what the ancients meant by the word hubris. Berry believes that a modern science based on this arrogant ignorance (and I might add displaying itself with intellectual rhetoric) “resembles much too closely an automobile being driven by a six-year-old or a loaded pistol in the hands of a monkey.”

In the 21st Century so many aspects of our lives are globally informed: the markets that drive our various employments, our entertainment, our digital communication, our politics. What scares me (and Wendell Berry) is the troubling reality that most of these far reaching pieces of our lives are managed by “experts” that don’t have all the answers.

Let me offer a bit of advice, if I may: beware of those with all the answers. We may naturally incline to those with seeming expertise. It gives a sense of security. But in most Areas of our lives, there are always exceptions and limitations to our generalizations and professed knowledge.

I work as a researcher in a large corporation. Our sales and marketing groups are constantly seeking answers - usually quick answers - to complicated questions. They want these answers to be straight forward and easily understood. They love it when a researcher, posing as someone with great authority, provides them with an absolute answer that they are happy with. This sort of answer does two things for them. It answers their question, and it also takes the responsibility of having to make a difficult decision. Who, after all, will go against and absolute statement of a scientist?

Yet this is not the wisest path forward. Much more to be trusted is the scientist that provides not only the answers that are supported by the data, but also provides a disclaimer on the limits of what is actually known, or even contradictions to the data (most people would be surprised at how much contradictory data exists for many things we consider to be fully understood). This kind of scientist is often not very popular, not only because he or she requires someone to make a possibly imperfect decision. But such a scientist also requires someone (or perhaps a group of people) to use wisdom. Someone has to be responsible.

This is the kind of person that Socrates pleaded with the Athenians to consider, all those years ago. There were far too many in his day that seemed to know everything, yet in the end they knew very little. Socrates was the only one who recognized that he did not have all the answers. Because he knew this, he also knew that his detractors didn’t know all that they claimed. He made a lot of enemies when this became apparent. In the end it cost him his life. The Athenians did not want to face the embarrassing reality of their own limitations. We are no different today.

Perhaps the most profound example of the limitation of intellectual rhetoric is found in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. Here it is recorded that Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, upon learning this, were upset. They asked the man accusingly how it happened. They brought in his parents and examined them. Then they re-examined the man and cross examined him. The leading intellectuals of the day were absolutely convinced that this miracle could not have happened. It went totally against the logical framework they had built for themselves. But in the end they were wrong and they knew it. Against all their logic and informed reasoning they could not counter the basic fact insisted upon by this man “that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”

Some years later, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the apostle Peter was faced with another master of intellectual rhetoric. His name was Simon Magus, a Samaritan, who claimed to be a higher god than the Creator Himself. Much of his appeal was due to his quick mind but there was also a compelling shock value that came from his alarming claims. Many who did not like him continued to follow him because of this. Much of his story and the many discussions that he had with Peter are found in the Recognitions of Clement where a version of his abilities can be seen. Simon is a prime example of intellectual rhetoric because he parallels many intellectuals today in the ability he had to out-reason any potential detractors and to go virtually unchallenged. Unchallenged, that is, until he confronted Peter, whose simple consistent and inspired reasoning he could not confound.

Today I worry that we have too few Peters that can stand up to the many clever intellectuals bearing scientific truths. Even knowing that science changes many of its conclusions with every generation, we continue to give the arguments (and their purveyors) carte blanche. As a result we continue facing our many challenges - both local and global challenges - with knee-jerk solutions that end up being far too costly. In the meantime we end up destroying lives, the earth, and the dignity that should be ours to enjoy.

One of Wendell Berry’s answers to this tragedy is that “the arts and sciences need to be made answerable to standards higher than those of any art or science.” Peter obviously had higher standards. Sadly our intellectual community often does not. They often make claims to pursue truth wherever it leads. But this is of little help when decisions are made with imperfect information; or worse, with myopic hubris. If we continue to follow the lead of intellectual rhetoric and the low standards (or no standards) that inform it, we will soon find ourselves being led down a path of complete confusion or complete cynicism - and easy prey to enemies within and without.

Our need for cultural renewal needs to begin now while it is still possible - and while we still have a culture to save. We need to be wise enough to see that this must happen from within ourselves as we make careful, deliberate and faithful decisions – looking both forward and backwards to gain equilibrium even while we look above for direction. It will certainly not come as a sudden gift from smart people, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.


Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society was published by Basic Books in 2007. Wendell Berry’s essay The Way of Ignorance can be found in the thin volume of essays with the same title (and same author) published in 2005 by Shoemaker and Hoard. The story of Peter and Simon Magus and their several debates is in the Recognitions of Clement. My version is in Volume 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, published by Hendrickson in 1994. Some of the Clementine literature has undoubtedly been modified but Simon was certainly a real detractor of the early Church and I expect that much of his personality can be perceived in what we have of Clement’s account.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Prayer of Sacrifice

There are many kinds of prayers. Some are short like a blessing on the food. Some are formulaic like the words used in an ordinance. Some are formal like a public invocation. Some are deeply personal like the cloistered pleading of a needy soul. None, however, is more significant as a means of approaching our Heavenly Father than a sincere prayer offered over an altar of sacrifice.

Surely, you must be thinking, I can’t be serious. Altars of sacrifice are thousands of years out of date. They may have been important in Old Testament times, but not today. Besides, Christianity is clear about the practice of sacrifice being replaced by baptism and the Sacrament (or the Eucharist).

And so it has been. But let us be clear on at least one point. The practice of animal sacrifice is only a part of the Law of Sacrifice, and this law was never intended to be superseded. With the exception of a few isolated Israelite enclaves (such as the Ethiopian Fallashas) animal sacrifice was indeed abandoned. But the religious truths it stood for were never changed. Joseph Smith’s statement that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto salvation.” Sacrifice needs very much to be a part of our contemporary worship - and prayer should be a part of that sacrifice, just like it was anciently.

I am not suggesting that we find a place in our backyards and start placing stones together into a pile. This would obviously be inappropriate and unnecessary. There are enough symbolic altars around for us to use. Some of these altars exist in temples, churches, and other meeting houses around the world. They can even exist in our homes. All that is needed is a willingness to give all that we have to God. Of course this is not a trivial thing, and a somnolent muttering of syllables is hardly the spirit intended. Because at the heart of the Law of Sacrifice – at the heart of giving all we have to God – is the giving up of our sins. A prayer before an altar of sacrifice is a plea for forgiveness. It has been this way from the beginning.

Anciently prayer was intimately associated with sacrifice. In fact the first references to prayer in the Bible involve altars. In Genesis 12:8 we read that when Abram (Abraham) came to a mountain near Bethel and pitched his tent that “he builded an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord.” An earlier reference to prayer (in Genesis 4:26) appears to stand alone (without an altar) until we read the same, yet expanded, narrative in the Book of Moses (Chapter 5:5-8) where Adam is commanded to offer the firstlings of his flocks for an offering unto the Lord. After many days an angel appears to Adam and commands him that he must also “repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore.” In fact an earlier verse in Chapter 4 (verses 3-4, also in the Book of Moses) also shows the relationship of prayer to altars.

Later Solomon is recorded to have offered prayer before an altar with outstretched hands “And it was so, that when Solomon had made an end of praying all this prayer and supplication unto the Lord, he arose from before the altar of the Lord, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread up to heaven” (I kings 8:54).

In the Book of Mormon account of the missionary efforts of the sons of Mosiah, it is recorded that many were brought to a “knowledge of the truth; yea, by the power of their words many were brought before the altar of God, to call on his name and confess their sins before him.” (Alma 17:4). And other examples exist throughout the standard works.

One of the important clues in these verses to the significance of these prayers is the use of the verb “to call”. These are not just prayers that are spoken. These are prayers that call upon God. Two-way communication is expected. A prayer before a sacrificial altar is intended to be a revelatory experience.

Hugh Nibley has pointed out that this sacrificial prayer was tied very early not just to revelation but also to divine instruction and the performing of ordinances. He translates a passage from Clement showing that “Adam finding he needed help, solicited divine assistance with prayers and sacrifice… That was the beginning of the ordinances of God.”

Some of this is evident in the remarkable story of Peter’s testimony in Matthew (Chapter 16). You may recall the remarkable passage where Peter testifies that Jesus is the Christ. This is followed by the famous reference that is interpreted so differently by Catholics, Protestants and Mormons: “thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church.” The Catholic tradition understands that Peter (Petros, meaning rock or stone) is the rock upon which the church will be founded. To other Christian faiths - including Mormons - the 2nd rock is in reference to revelation. And the words of Christ to Peter represent a double-entendre: Peter and the rock (petros) of revelation.

I do not disagree with this interpretation but I think it is missing something important - something centered on prayer, altars and sacrifice. Consider the setting: it is in the mountainous area near Caesarea Philippi. And consider the double entendre: Peter and the rock. One does not need much of an imagination to see a reference to temple worship here. Mountains are often used either as symbols of temples or as physical places where temples are located. Stones, of course, are what altars were made of.

I find it hard to believe that these elements are combined in this passage by accident, especially considering how things end. This stone upon which Christ’s church is to be built will prevail against the “gates of hell.” As Hugh Nibley pointed out several years ago, the “it” in the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is (in Greek) a partitive genitive. For Nibley this means that the gates of hell shall not prevail against those who are already there. The traditional interpretation, on the other hand, is a more difficult translation: the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.

I believe that a more penetrating understanding of this reference (and one involving a more trenchant double meaning) is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the altar of the temple. This interpretation (as well as Nibley’s) makes Peter’s revelatory experience a temple experience. It is intimately tied to the Law of Sacrifice.

Further evidence for this altar can be found in the following chapter (Mathew 17). It is here that Christ is again on the mountain with Peter, James and John. After Christ has been transfigured, and when Peter realizes the heavenly messengers that have been there, the leading apostle suggests that three tabernacles be built: one for Christ, one for Moses and one for Elias. Now the word “tabernacle” (the Greek skene) is easily overlooked. In the Old Testament it is often used for any kind of tent or dwelling. In the Matthew account it is different, especially given the sanctity of the setting and the messengers involved. Perhaps the clearest indication of what is intended is to refer to the Book of Hebrews (in the 8th and 9th chapters). Here the word “tabernacle” clearly refers to sacrifice and ordinances. Verse 2 (Chapter 8) reference is made to a “minister of a sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices…” in verse 3 (Chapter 9) we learn that the tabernacle “which is called the Holiest of all” is after the second veil in the temple where the golden censer and the Ark of the Covenant were kept.

Of course there is no proof of a physical altar of stones here but I think the evidence suggests that there was one. I do think, however, that at least one thing is quite clear in all of this: the Law of Sacrifice was intended to be a central part of an enduring Christianity, not a forgotten relict of its Jewish past.

Now this is a very different interpretation of what altars and sacrifice mean than the one accepted by the scholarly community. This view of animal sacrifice is that it evolved in prehistoric times among human hunting bands as a way of appeasing the arbitrary anger of the gods. Blood dripped on altar stones becomes a symbol of mankind’s reaction to his own inherent violence, not a symbol of repentance and redemption. To James Carroll (noted author of Constantine’s Sword) sacrifice is an evolutionary epiphenomenon that allowed primitive humans to deal with death. It “is the invention that aims to make sense of, and to restrict, violence.”

Such a view is na├»ve and far too simplistic. Carroll should know better. Claiming the deepest rituals of religion to be mere atavisms performed by primitive simpletons is a mockery at best. Placing animal flesh on an altar was, to earlier times, an act of giving one’s most valued possessions to God.

Nor was this sense lost in the early Christian church. Of course baptism and the sacrament came to replace animal sacrifice but this was not the end of making an offering of self to God - certainly an essential aspect of sacrifice. Stone altars were placed at the center of churches where, instead of partaking of animal flesh, worshippers partook of a token piece of bread instead. All the key elements of ancient expiatory sacrifice are still in place: a humble kneeling approach to God, a calling on His name, an offering of all one has (including the forsaking of one’s sins), a sacred meal that recognizes the supreme sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

All of this was never meant to be lost. But our ignorance of what it signifies has been a loss of tragic proportions to those truly seeking transformative truths. Certainly God, our Father, hears our simple prayers. But ultimately there is only one way back to His presence, and it is through the sacrifice of His Son. And it is worth remembering that there is a different kind of prayer that is meant to remember and acknowledge this all-important fact. It is a prayer of sacrifice.


Joseph Smith’s statement on sacrifice is in Lectures on Faith (6th lecture). It is not certain which sections of this formerly canonized work were written by the prophet himself, but all of the lectures were approved by him. For Nibley’s account of early Christian sacrificial prayers see The Early Christian Prayer Circle; in, Mormonism and Early Christianity (Volume 4 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley). Nibley’s insights on the “the Gates of Hell” are in Baptism for the dead in Ancient Times (also in his Collected Works, Volume 4). Two sources dealing with the modern interpretation of animal sacrifice (which are misguided in my mind) are Walter Burkert’s Homo Necans, the Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, and James Carroll’s recent Jerusalem, Jerusalem.