- Awesome – awe; or
- Curiosity –
The Mormon Internet is abuzz these days with the effective marketing of the CES Letter, with this recent one from friends over at Zelph on the Shelf, a comprehensive guide to well-worn criticisms against the LDS Church and Mormonism in general. While there are many questions and challenges that ought to be raised by the CES Letter, many people go so far as to give up on God altogether. While the remnant/restorationist community has quietly added people interested in remembering the original intent of the Restoration by the Prophet, Joseph Smith, their efforts pale compare to the massive successes in the ex-Mormon agnostic/atheist communities. This post is an attempt to answer/address those concerns in light of being respectful of their positions, but helping to show a better way, one that does not give up on seeking the Christ.
I believe one of the keys is to develop a healthy sense of awesome curiosity.
As children, during the toddler years, we didn’t care a whit about authority. When our parents told us not to touch the hot plate, we did it anyway, because we needed to experience these things for ourselves. We said “no” to everything. We tested everything. We did it with childlike wonder, not because we didn’t trust the adults, but because it didn’t matter what THEY thought. The world was so new that we had to test everything for ourselves!
The Savior taught,
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Then there is King Benjamin,
“For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child,submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”
There are many applications to these scriptures, but the application I want to apply is the sense of awe that a child displays at learning about the world. There are no pre-conceived notions, no “Occam’s razor,” no appeal to authority, just unadulterated possibilities.
We have too much unbelief as adults, particularly as cultural Westerners, but this cultural tendency has followed us into Mormonism as well. It also follows us out of Mormonism when we leave. We are constantly on the outlook for authority, the safe answer. We crave authority–it calls to us as a safety valve when we are brought up against something that challenges us. It seems as Gentiles that we are forever cursed with it. During the Dark Ages we looked to the Catholic Church and the Divine Right of Kings. The Reformation brought the Enlightenment, reformed church authority, the authority of reason, the authority of government, the authority of texts, and the authority of the authentic self. All of these compete in the marketplace of ideas to one degree or another. But we still crave authority, and we debate about it, and seek to convert others to our understanding of proper authority.
Somewhere between the toddler years and grade school, we learn about the benefit of authority, of learning from someone else’s mistakes so we don’t have to feel the pain of a bad experience. We don’t really much like pain, so we soon learn to trust authority on issues that won’t lead us into a path of pain. To one extent or another, we take this upon us and go with it, to one degree or another. A few eschew it, and others embrace it with aplomb.
We not only fear the pain of experience, but we fear being wrong. We want to believe that the path we are taking, whether philosophical or the actual steps we take each day, are the right steps. Some of us plan ahead for years to ensure those steps are correct. We study manuals, read authoritative texts, test results, consult the experts, and make choices based upon the propensity of our certainty. Even in choices of love, we consult the stars, pedigrees, attractiveness, and spiritual confirmation, to determine a sense of certainty about the person we choose to be with our entire life, all in hopes that the choice will be right, and cause us very little pain.
Belief vs. Knowledge
But many are also lazy in their pursuit of knowledge. We have a tendency to cut corners, to be comfortable with filters instead of getting right to the source. We develop all sorts of opinions based upon authority filters, and we do it with as little work as possible. We become credulous to some authority, and incredulous to others. At the same time, we find little time, effort, or desire to form our own experiences based on our own awesome curiosity. We become stuck weighing authority for the development of truth. This happens whether we are orthodox in our own religiosity, or whether we are orthodox to systems that are loyal to the establishment of reason. Usually I find it is because we read and think too much on one hand, and not enough on the other.
The error here is in the need to develop certainty. Mormons love to teach the value of certainty. In the statement “we know” something is true, we feel to develop the certainty of a principle, even if in the true sense of the word “know” we don’t really know, we just believe strongly. Or . . . we equate feelings of the Spirit on a topic with the concept of knowing. Alma 32 teaches us otherwise. We can only know if something has goodness it in by the process of planting a seed of truth, and then waiting for the fruit. Sometimes we like to circumvent the process and go right for the fruit. I believe that’s an error. If we settle for the feeling without the planting, we can be led astray.
Let me illustrate: How many can distinguish the feelings of peace and love with the feelings of safety and security? I will admit that they are almost the same kind of feeling. The Lord has positive things to say about peace and love being fruits of the Spirit (Note that they are NOT the Spirit). The Lord does not have good things to say about safety and security (or “all is well”). Those feelings are associated with being led astray into deception. If one goes directly to the feeling of an experience, one could be misled. However, if one goes through the implantation process of testing a truth, a pattern emerges where we:
- Learn about a principle, as much as we can
- Test the principle by reason and also by pondering about it in your heart
- Feeling the Holy Ghost or absence of the Holy Ghost
- Does it cause a “burning of the bosom”?
- Does it cause “swelling motions?”
- Does it cause in increase of love for God and for others?
If these things occur, we can know the seed is good, even if we don’t yet “know” the principle is true in the most complete sense of the word. That comes later. All it means is “keep going.” Note that the process is no shortcut. We don’t go straight for the feelings of “peace.” Peace may be a fruit of the Spirit, but sometimes the Spirit encourages us to do things that can cause us consternation or dread, yet we know we must do it. I doubt Abraham, for example, felt much peace taking Isaac up the mountain to be sacrificed, or that the Savior felt much peace going to the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes the absence of peace is required. We cannot shortcut this process, no matter how our Gentile sensibilities want us to. We must ask tons of questions of the Lord, and ponder the matter, showing a good-faith effort in our gardening sensibilities. Otherwise, we may be asking amiss.
The problem with going straight for the peace and love train is that these things are evident everywhere, not just in Mormonism. We can feel peace and love watching a great movie, doing drugs, going to another church, listening to Christmas music, or during the State of Union address (if it’s our guy.) Just going by the emotion is dangerous. The heart “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” – Jeremiah 17:9. The heart cannot be trusted, although inevitably, it will responds positively to righteousness. Otherwise how could man have joy in righteousness?
Man has a tendency to trust either his heart or his head. If his heart, he ignore facts that bombard his brain. He becomes separated from them, enduring “cognitive dissonance.” If, however, a man trusts his brain and not his heart, the problem often then becomes the appeals to authority. Facts, in and of themselves cannot save you. They cannot teach you truth. They can only inform. Men who believe they are trusting only in reason deceive themselves, for the mind plays tricks on us, it creates narratives that are delicious to our sense of needing certainty about things, which in the complete scheme of things, is just another deception of the heart. It is a fool thing to believe that we can elevate ourselves completely beyond our own emotions. We are humans, not robots. The entire history of philosophy has shown the folly of this error. The Age of Reason lasted about 200 years and ended up with Napoleon and Rousseau in the Romantic era. Reason is subject to facts. Facts are incomplete, and the narratives that tie facts together are highly subjective. It’s why today’s philosophers do not try to find a grand theme of truth in reason. They’ve kind of given up.
The folly of certainty through appeals to authority has lead to a long and disillusioned path for Mormons. We are taught to trust in the Spirit, but we often circumvent the process and go for the emotional dessert. The Church (and the church) makes matters worse by using heart-sell tactics to deliver feelings of peace directly to us without any of the work it takes to create real peace. Seeing a meme on Facebook, listening to a choir piece, seeing a beautiful air-brushed photo of the temple, or hearing a tearful General Conference sound-bite on Mormon.org may have great intentions, but they often end up deceiving us into accepting the counterfeit peace for the real thing. When we then encounter these feelings in other arenas, we either feel deceived by the implied “corner on the market” we sometimes assume with such tactics, or we follow these feelings into other efforts that do not save.
For the thinking Mormon, this can be even more destructive, because we often begin to realize that the heart isn’t a good tool to measure truth. We become incredulous of feelings, and rely upon the more sound systems of evidence and reason. But we never seem to be able to give up our need to be certain about things. We displace the authority of the heart-sell to the authority of the head-sell, as we see with the CES Letter. We turn to the experts, to academia, to established science, to peer review, to popular thinking-oriented political philosophies, hoping that as we do so, we will be unable to be duped.
But grasping onto thinking authority can be just as destructive, because it’s more subtle. While religious and business institutions are well-known for their bottom-line tactics, we seem to me more circumspect about institutions that are supposed to hearken to a different call, in medicine, academia, and in science. We expect them to be noble and righteous. Well . . . didn’t we once think that about our “one true Church?” How are the motivations of humans in noble institutions of reason any more noble than motivations of humans that operate in the spiritual business sphere? There may be more checks and balances, true, but in many ways, there are also more filters to wade through. Most true science hides beh
ind university paywalls that take some difficulty accessing (back to the efficient information problem) so we settle for Facebook memes and soundbites or science and political puff pieces that get promoted in mainstream journalism–hardly an unbiased source. What we often do when we start to move from religious belief to secular belief is really just switch authority teams.
We give up having faith in the “Church”, and we turn to having faith in humanity. Either way, we put our trust in the arm of flesh.
The Mormon Shelf
Which brings us to shelves. The shelf metaphor has been a metaphor for the thinking Mormon, who gathers what she can rationally absorb into the room, and puts what she cannot absorb onto the proverbial shelf, to be dealt with another day. I find the shelf metaphor imperfect. As a little child, one does not stick things on shelves, one plays with everything, with a sense of curiosity even about that which they do not understand. Sometimes those toys are the funnest to play with! I wonder if we would do better not putting sensitive stuff on shelves and instead, wade into the waters with them, embracing them in all of their ambiguity and possibilities, and stop trying to limit what outcomes will be by short-cutting the system with incredulity and appeals the heart or to “Occam’s razor,” which is just another way of saying that you feel like you must limit possibilities, that you must establish a boundary of incredulity. Maybe we should just be a little more patient, even though that’s hard for little children. Adults trying to learn to be like little children, however, patience should be easier because the need for certainty isn’t as dramatic. It’s really an attitude learned and sense of wonder about the universe. As a thinking Mormon, you can go one of two ways. You can fold your arms, gather facts, and develop a narrative that limits possibilities based on appeals to authority. Nephi warns:
28 O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. 2 Nephi 9:28
This appeal to authority is part of “thinking one is wise”, but in reality, they limit the ability to learn truth from other sources, spiritual sources, because it doesn’t fit within the paradigm of modern scientific consensus. However, this can happen whether the appeal is to scientific knowledge or to General Conference authority.
The other way you can is to be learned is to understand that we haven’t even scratched the surface and that we know about as much as a pinhead is to the universe, and that spirituality is virtually untouched! That should shake your certainty to the core, and hopefully make you a little more humble. Humility is a key to spiritual truth. Learn to see the wonder in what you don’t know. Learn to love awesome curiosity!
I’m not saying we need to believe everything to a level of extreme gullibility. Most cases of over-belief into gullibility happen when people give up their critical thinking skills to the authority of another, whether prophet, priest, or professor. The trick in the balance is test as much as you can with your own empirical approaches, in your own appeals for truth, and save your incredulity for authority, ANY authority, even those that preach impartiality and reason as their foundation. The empirical/personal anecdotal should be the most powerful knowledge in the universe, because it is the most meaningful, and we ought to be keeping open as many possibilities to attaining THAT knowledge as we can.
What can I do to develop awesome curiosity?
- Stop the appeals to authority! Whether you are orthodox Mormon or a more secular-leaning type, if you have to keep some incredulity or doubt, be incredulous of ALL authority, not just the opposing team. Doubt the prophet, politician, and professor with equal measure. Understand the limits of man, both in his mind, and in his heart. Be an equal opportunity skeptic. It gives doubting your doubts a whole new meaning.
- Follow leaders, not preachers – We can all find someone to preach to us, someone that will give us religion, or ideology, whether from the pulpit, or lectern, spoken in fiery rhetoric, or written with dispassionate logic. People have itching ears, and it’s even better when they can bask in glow of a cultural event where they can celebrate that preaching and listen for hours and hours. It’s far better to find someone who has plowed a road, someone you can actually learn from, and then go and try to plow your own road.
- Be more empirical – Don’t just believe what you read, or trust someone else’s experience, opinion, or path. Find your own! Prayer is wonderful because it can be a testing mechanism. There are rewards and benefits for doing it the right way. And there are some that have been able to transcend our own reality and peek into something different. The science of the experience does matter (is it inside or outside the self), but the experiences itself matters more, and I believe that can tell you infinitesimally more than naval gazing from the arm chair about whether it’s authentically external or suffers from confirmation bias.
- Don’t just believe, test belief – Instead of thinking about belief as a passive kind of Santa Claus belief, believe in a principle while expecting a reaction. An example would be to test belief in a particular attribute about God. Pray and behave as if that attribute is true. Does it make a difference in your prayers? Does it bring greater spiritual gifts? Does it increase your own love for others and for God? Does it bring you closer to God? If you don’t get expected results others have achieved, instead of assuming they are duped, re-examine first whether you have done the experiment correctly. Perhaps you need to make some adjustments.
- Adjust to new information – The world is always changing. They are always finding things under the great sandbox of scientific information. Does your personal belief system allow you the ability to be flexible? This doesn’t just mean being flexible to a new fact, but flexible to conflicting facts . . . or no facts at all. Does the absence of fact allow you to still move forward with possibilities? Do new facts constitute a puzzle piece or a narrative of certainty? The more certain, the less capable we are of adjusting to new information.
- Do whatever it takes – Does the prospect of finding God drive you? Do others experience help motivate you to find Him? Is it worth it? Do facts on the ground dispirit you from undertaking the quest? I believe that in order to do what it takes, one must have the drive to make this quest the most challenging of one’s life, to view it in terms of being the most rewarding. If all you find at the end of it all is increased bliss, it’s probably worth it to a point, but the world will drag you back down. But if the possibility of an audience with Heaven is the end goal, I would think one would stop at nothing.
I would challenge all of us to undertake this the Grand experiment!