True, Not Perfect
Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “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.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
Logic and Truth are Insufficient
As a follow up to my post on truth seeking, I want to offer some thoughts connecting my post to an article in the New Yorker recently. The New Yorker article details the work of Brendan Nyhan who has studied the effect of media campaigns on the perception of political issues and policies. He has found that political beliefs — and, indeed, deeply-held beliefs of any kind — are almost impossible to change via marketing, discussion, logic or even broadly accepted facts!
To me this seems obviously related to our evolutionary bias for tribalism, which specifically helps us define ourselves as members of a group for protection. Of necessity, this bias also results in a desire to create “us” and “them” identifiers, which we use to maintain the integrity of the “tribe.” This is also the basis for a whole lot of nasty human tendencies: racism, sexism, religious tensions, extreme nationalism, etc. So, this bias is/was evolutionarily beneficial, but is highly problematic in a modern world.
Groups of all sorts are defined by their set of beliefs, from political parties to religions to social clubs to nations to families. Members of those groups often use shared beliefs to define their membership in those groups. So, as we are biologically biased to preserve our membership in groups, it makes sense that beliefs that tie us to those groups would be difficult to let go of. This is what Nyhan found in his research, and what I indicated was challenging in my previous post.
In discussing Nyhan’s findings with a friend, it reminded me of something I learned from my mother, who has a master’s degree in educational psychology, which was that people don’t really change as a general rule, but there are few things that can prompt substantial change in an individual:
- A near-death experience
- A life-threatening illness
- Cognative restructring, often achieved through psychological counseling
- A dramatic change of heart, often associated with a religious conversion
Perhaps this means that next time you run into someone with whom you have a deep fundamental disagreement, rather than trying to convince them that you’re right, you either need to guide them through therapy on the subject or convert them to your belief. Or you could just agree to disagree.
The Psychological and Cultural Challenges of Truth-Seeking
Whether we realize it or not, we are always seeking truth. That is what our brains are wired to do. Every time something happens the same way or we hear the same sound or we see the same image, the neural pathways are reinforced to connect that event to our understanding of reality. We gain understanding through everything that we do, everything we sense, and in some way or another, even everything that we imagine. We are connecting the dots, constantly seeking a fuller understanding of the truth about those things that affect us.
The learning of truth is a synergistic process. As our understanding grows to incorporate new principles, it reinforces our understanding of principles we have already learned and moves us closer to new truths. I like to use the analogy of a tapestry being woven by hand, thread by thread – not necessarily in order. Each principle we learn is a thread placed and understood by its relation to those intersecting and nearby. As more and more threads are placed, more and more of the pattern of the overall tapestry is revealed. The portions that appear most complete may not be adjacent to each other, and we may have few connecting threads between them. However, as long as we are continuously adding new threads and fixing the patterns more properly and completely into place, we are making progress. We may occasionally have to pull out a few threads and re-arrange the tapestry slightly, but doing so helps resolve the overall image more clearly, and allows us to continue to progress. Refusing to pull threads may result in a complete, though senseless tapestry. Properly attended, you will not live long enough to complete your tapestry, but you will still find much beauty in it.
As the nature of Truth prevents any individual from ever completing their tapestry, it can be very difficult to judge truths claimed by others – they may have worked on completely different parts of their tapestry – approaching truth from a different set of core beliefs, using a different set of tools and methodologies for finding truth. Although we are all working on our own copy of the same tapestry, our works-in-progress, as they will always be, will always look different from everyone else’s. No two people have the same understanding of truth. Depending on our point of view, this can be troubling or exciting.
Truth is what is, what was and what will be. There is only one truth. It is, however, infinitely divisible. It is ignorant to think that any one person could comprehend all truth, and equally ignorant to think that there could be anyone who does not understand any truth. We all have a unique understanding of truth formed by our journey through this life. By communicating with each other we can attempt to share our understanding. When we have had similar experiences with another person, we will find that there is much understanding that we hold in common – reinforcing those truths. When we find someone who has had significantly different experiences than we have had, the opportunity to learn from them is greater, as their understanding may be much different than ours, and may require us to make several other connections to truly understand their perspective.
Unfortunately, when we meet someone who has a different understanding of truth than we do, the natural tendency is to attempt to convince them to see things our way. Most of the time this difference is caused by religion and culture (the scientific approach leaves comparatively little to debate), often stemming from different traditional and cultural interpretations of truths handed down by trusted authorities. Though a person might assume that a debate is about a single differing point of understanding of truth, such a debate is likely to be less about the point of truth itself but more about how that understanding was derived. In other words, to criticize a doctrinal point can very easily be taken as an attack against a religious figure or against an entire culture. Before we can learn from someone, we have to grant them a certain amount of respect that extends to both their beliefs and experience as well as to the person.
If we focus on the goal of understanding and learning as much as we can, I believe this search for truth can be one of the most powerful unifying forces available to us. We can learn a great deal from talking to someone with whom we disagree. If we are focused on learning and not teaching, others will be more likely to be interested in learning about us. This focus on understanding can bring differing views together peaceably. It is when we decide that there is nothing another individual can teach us that we start down the road to animosity.
Usually, two reasonable people who desire to learn from each other and find truth can reach a joint understanding of the truth they are discussing. Unfortunately, there are times when a consensus cannot be reached. It is the nature of truth itself that is partly to blame. Because we cannot understand it perfectly, cannot understand all the connections or relevant information, we are not in a position to learn everything. Others with different experiences may be able to understand something that we never will. This is not because we are ignorant or defective, but merely illustrates the need for many members in a society. Some have particular talents or preferences that lead them to different truths than those around them. We can’t expect to learn everything that others understand, but we can expect to learn something from anyone. However, two people from completely different backgrounds will likely not have the frame of reference necessary to come to agreement on everything, no matter how long they talk.
Additionally, because of the nature of belief – filling in when there is an absence of knowledge – there are a great many errant beliefs out there. They exist because they help people make sense of things or otherwise help them in some way. They are not made up on a whim. They serve a vital purpose in helping people live normal lives. Perhaps it is because of their critical role in our lives that beliefs are difficult to change. Many people don’t even recognize the difference between their beliefs and their knowledge. One main difference is that you can believe something that is not true. You cannot know something that is not true.
By definition, truth excludes what is not true. If two different people or groups have understandings of truth that are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled, they must consider the other to be wrong. In the end, one group will be right, and the other wrong, or both can be wrong. Both cannot be correct.
One would hope that through dialogue and respect that all such differences could be reconciled, bringing all involved to a deeper understanding of truth. Unfortunately, the powers of culture, pride and loyalty seem to scuttle such dialogue more often than not. The more elevated one’s position in a culture, religion or field of study, the more difficult it is to admit a false belief. As a result, those with the greatest power to affect change are often the ones for whom change is most difficult. However, when an individual in such a position is able to focus on the truth and recognize its worth to those he leads, the benefits usually outweigh the negative consequences, though often at a high personal cost to that leader.
Additionally, there are often people in positions of little power who have discovered truths, and who find the culture they are in to be hostile to those truths. It takes a similar level of courage and conviction to hold fast to those truths, despite the persecution they receive. The more revolutionary the truth discovered, the more likely the individual will be remembered and respected, if posthumously, for their work. Galileo and Martin Luther are two good examples.
Suffice it to say, reconciling new truths that are contrary to deeply held beliefs will always be a difficult process, regardless of the source of the truth. Perhaps part of the difficulty comes from the fact that it very easy to believe something, but to truly understand something takes much more effort and active learning. It is almost always easiest to believe the things that those around you believe. Seeking to turn that belief into knowledge and a better understanding of truth is a difficult process.
There is great value in understanding. It is the essence of progress and power. It changes our relationship with truth. Instead of a being a passive observer or even victim of truth, with understanding we become masters of truth and can turn it into power, influence and ability. It is worth the effort.
Line Upon Line
Because this is General Conference weekend and I can see everything “on-demand” as it were, I have made the choice to treat this as a Sunday when I can support my wife in her religious choices. So, twice a year, we all go to the Unitarian Universalist church she attends, the First Church in Salem. I like the congregation a lot. I particularly like the pastor, Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell. So, I had been looking forward to attending with her — to the extent that I started thinking about why that was, and formulated the seed for this post.
One of the things that I have appreciated about Pastor Jeff is that he has always taken a very humble approach to his sermons. It may be that most Universalists are that way, but I like that he does not pretend any God-given authority, and relies solely on his reasoning, education, and down-to-earth-we’re-all-in-this-together view of things to persuade in his sermons. I suspect the approach is not uncommon among the UU congregations, as there is “The Covenant” hanging on the wall to the right of the pulpit:
In short, they believe in doing their best to live according to the spiritual truth they know. This can be applied to almost anyone, which is why I believe it’s important to support my wife, and anyone else for that matter, in whatever religion they choose. When we are true to the knowledge we have, God will give us more, guiding us ever closer to him. This is the “line upon line” principle, taught in Isaiah 28 and reiterated several times in LDS scriptures.
Interestingly, both sermons Pastor Jeff gave this morning – the “children’s moment” and the general sermon – both illustrated this principle. For the children, he had an object lesson with two pieces of fruit, one of which was made to seem much more appetizing than the other, and taught the principle of knowing good people by their “fruit”. For the adults he talked about the importance of sticking to the core Christianity from which Unitarians originated. For the kids, tools to teach them how to find knowledge, and for the adults, a reminder that extreme interpretations of Jesus Christ are not the only option, and Christianity will always have value to those able to separate Christ from the “Christians.”
We are all at different levels of spirituality, but this principle is the same for all of us. Hold on to the truth you have. Live it, use it, then ask for more. That is the way we ALL progress to be closer to Him. I am grateful for all of the good people in the world that do their best to follow the truth they understand. We should all spend more time asking, seeking and knocking.
I’ll be spending the remainder of this week watching the General Conference sessions I missed.