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Some Thoughts on “Bracketing” and the Relationship of Reason and Revelation

When I first started this blog back in 2010, I called it “Reason and Revelation.” I spelled out some thoughts I had on the relationship between the two at the time. Of course, as with all things, when I write, the thinking is not necessarily done, not even by me. Like everyone else, I keep wrestling with the tension that the two often create—a wrestle that, I must admit, I find strengthens faith.

There is a growing tendency among Latter-day Saint academics to talk about “bracketing” faith out of scholarship (although not everyone uses that term). While I grant that this method has certain benefits as a provisional mental or intellectual exercise, and I have gained some valuable insights both from works where such “bracketing” has been done and from engaging such exercises myself, I fear there are also corrosive effects that are not often recognized by its practitioners.

For starters, more often than not, it is not treated merely as a provisional mental exercise, but rather as a permanent, methodological necessity. That is, the conclusions reached while the lens of faith is removed are taken to be more valid and more accurate than those reached with faith. This has at least two byproducts that are harmful to holding a vibrant faith.

First, it treats the lens of faith as a distortion rather than a corrective. Most practitioners of bracketing, I suspect, will object to this assertion, and I accept that none of them are consciously meaning to demean faith in this way. Nonetheless, it is inherent in the method. By privileging conclusions reached without faith, you inherently make faith a negative bias—as I said, a distortion to how you read and interpret the data which should be removed.

While most secular academics would likely read that, nod their heads and say, “Yes, of course, that is exactly what faith is,” as believers and disciples, we ought to take a more positive view of our faith and the revelations it gives us access to. Faith should be viewed as a positive bias—a lens which improves and enhances our vision and clarifies what we see. A corrective to our imperfect ability to reason and interpret.

The second byproduct is that it creates what I call a “One Way Street,” between reason and revelation. Because faith is “bracketed,” i.e., blocked off from traveling with our reason into the realm of scholarship, faith and revelation have no influence on the conclusions reached. But these conclusions are still imported back into the practitioner’s faith. That is, they reshape and reform their faith in light of conclusions reached without faith.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I am not opposed to letting scholarship, reason, and evidence influence and shape the content of our faith. My faith has certainly under gone changes as a result new information. What I am opposed to is the one way relationship created by bracketing faith out of scholarship, but not bracketing scholarship out of faith. Instead, I believe that faith and scholarship, reason and revelation, should have a two-way, give and take relationship. Where they help influence and shape each other.

This should not be viewed, however, as a relationship of equal partners. While granting that we can—and sometimes do—misunderstand what the Lord has revealed, we nonetheless ought to grant the Lord’s revelations precedence over our own reasoning. I particularly like the metaphor of faith and reason as riders on a tandem bike. Both must not only be pedaling, but they must be in-sync with each other in order to move forward most effectively. And while the rider in the back can offer some guidance on where to go, only the front rider can actually steer the bike. I would suggest that faith should be the front rider. When we bracket faith out of scholarship, however, we often times not only make reason the front rider, but push faith off the bike completely (or, at least, forbid it from pedaling at all, making it dead weight).

In closing, I would simply like to state what should be obvious—my faith is a part of me. As such, it will influence any creative act in which I engage—and make no mistake about it, scholarship, particularly that related to history and the humanities, is an act of creation, and hence a creative endeavor. It would be absurd to ask someone to “bracket” or ignore evidence they know contradicts something the Sunday School teacher, or the Sacrament meeting speaker, is saying. And, indeed, most practitioners of the bracketing method turn around and insist that scholarship is an important part of their faith, despite not letting faith be part of their scholarship.

I can no more bracket my faith out of my attempts at scholarship than I can turn off my brain and capacity to reason while worshiping at Church, or while reading the scriptures devotionally. Both reason and faith are part of who I am, and are constantly influencing me in how I understand both scholarship and revelation. To my best recollection, I have never pretended it to be otherwise. I freely and willingly and openly let faith influence my scholarship (and vice-versa), and leave to readers to decide what to count that for (whether it be a weakness or a strength). 

Comments

  1. You wrote, ":...faith and revelation have no influence on the conclusions reached. But these conclusions are still imported back into the practitioner’s faith. That is, they reshape and reform their faith in light of conclusions reached without faith."

    This seems to me to be what happened to the monotheists; they lost sight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three separate beings.

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  2. Excellent essay. As someone who is near sighted to the point of almost blindness the image of a corrective lens is a powerful metaphor for me. I can see without my glasses but do not trust my judgment in my sight well enough to drive. When I apply the glasses I now see nothing that was not there originally but it is now in sharp focus. I am certain of what I am looking at and I trust my interpretation of the image. When I remove the glasses again and look without them the image is again blurred as other near sighted people might see it but the memory of the sharp image allows me to decern more than they and evaluate with confidence.

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  3. I think this is absolutely right. And of course, Latter-day Saints are commanded to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). A dogma that permanently bars faith and those things that derive from it (such as revelation) as part of our learning - as you put it, one that makes either 'bracketing' or methodological naturalism a permanent methodological necessity - explicitly disobeys that instruction, and brings the difficulties you mention.

    This is especially true of approaches to the scriptures, which time and time again insist that they can only be understood by the spirit (2 Nephi 25, 1 Corinthians 2). Any approach to them that brackets itself and confines itself to human learning (shades of 2 Nephi 28:4) can only get so far.

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  4. I believe you've hit the nail squarely on the head. I think that some of our brightest scholars have made the mistake of pushing faith off the bike, and as a result have fallen away from the Church.

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