October 10, 2007

Truth, Prejudice, and the "Terrible Questions"

Part 1 of "The Great Gospel Sermon"  
Brigham Young  
August 8, 1852

After reading Section 76 to the congregation, Brigham said the section often led him to ponder the condition of the world, generally:


My mind rests upon this subject, upon this portion of the Gospel of salvation; and has done so, more or less, for a great many years. The circumstances that surround me, almost daily; things that I see and hear, cause my mind to reflect upon the situation of mankind; create in me an anxiety to find out-to learn why things are as they are; why it is that the Lord should build a globe like this earthly ball, and set it in motion-then people it with intelligent beings, and afterwards cast a vail over the whole, and hide Himself from His creation-conceal from them the wisdom, the glory, the truth, the excellency, the true principles of His character, and His design in forming the earth.
Brigham Young is essentially talking about what Hugh Nibley called the "terrible questions... the most fundamental and baffling questions of our existence."[1] Hugh B. Brown called them the questions of "whence, why, and whither," explaining they have "persisted through the ages."[2] These are the questions guaranteed to turn off most conversations with people who either believe they already know, or believe they never will. We believe there is an inherent "upward pull" beckoning us to come back home, beckoning us to become better. This is often called the "Light of Christ," and is given to all God's children. Along with this light, however, is placed a "vail," making us forget our former time as children of God. The concept of the vail left Brigham wondering:
Why cast this vail over them, and leave them in total darkness-leave them to be carried away with erroneous doctrines, and exposed to every species of wickedness that would render them obnoxious to the presence of God, who placed them upon the face of this earth. My daily experience and observation cause me to inquire into these things.
And yet, we hear one crying on the right hand, this is the law of God, this is the right way; another upon the left, saying the same; another in the front; and another in the rear; and to every point of the compass, hundreds and thousands of them, and all differing one from another.
Indeed, this mass of confusion led the Prophet Joseph, among others, to seek revelation from God as to who was right and who was wrong regarding these "terrible questions." Perhaps most remarkably, some religionists tend to avoid answering these questions as well, or answer with the statement that God knows, and that's good enough. Brigham conceded the people throughout the world, generally speaking, can be sincere in their preachings, even if they were wrong. The trouble was prejudice based on education or traditions handed down through generations:
They do the best they can, I admit. See the inhabitants of the earth, how they differ in their prejudices, and in their religion. What is the religion of the day? What are all the civil laws and governments of the day?
They are merely traditions, without a single exception. Do the people realize this-that it is the force of their education that makes right and wrong, with them?
It is not the line which the Lord has drawn out; it is not the law which the Lord has given them; it is not the righteousness which is according to the character of Him who has created all things, and by His own law governs and controls all things; but by the prejudice of education-the prepossessed feeling that is begotten in the hearts of the children of men, by surrounding objects; they being creatures of circumstances, who are governed and controlled by them more or less. When they, thus, are led to differ one from another, it begets in them different feelings; it causes them to differ in principle, object, and pursuit; in their customs, religion, laws, and domestic affairs, in all human life; and yet every one, of every nation there is under heaven, considers that they are the best people; that they are the most righteous; have the most intelligent and best of men for their priests and rulers, and are the nearest to the very thing the Lord Almighty requires of them. There is no nation upon this earth that does not entertain these sentiments.
Brigham continued by warning the saints that they can fall into the same trap, believing that because they have "the truth," they are all set. He continues in this discourse by talking about ethnocentrism, the tendency we have to read our own cultural views into religion and God, rather than learning from God.
Suppose a query arising in the minds of the different sects of the human family-"Do not the Latter-day Saints think they are the best people under the whole heavens, like ourselves?"
Yes, exactly; I take that to myself. The Latter-day Saints have the same feelings as the rest of the people; they think also, that they have more wisdom and knowledge, and are the nearest right of any people upon the face of the earth.
Brigham doesn't necessarily see this attitude as a virtue; it tends to stifle thought, and subdue a desire to continue seeking for further light and knowledge. It can also breed prejudice. Brigham used the local Indians as an example, telling the saints they needed to avoid prejudice toward their Native family:

Suppose you call upon the aborigines of our country, here, these wild Indians; we call them savages; we call them heathens. Let yourselves be divested of prejudice; let it be entirely forgotten and out of the question, together with all your education, and former notions of things, your religious tenets, et cetera, and let your minds be in open vision before the Almighty, seeing things as they are, you will find that that very people know just as much about the Lord as anybody else; like the rest of mankind, they step into a train of ideas and ordinances, peculiar to the prejudices of their education.
Again, recognizing ethnocentrism, Brigham said there were truths to be found outside the Church, and pieces of it could be found in varying cultures. Surely such cultural influences help maintain social order, and teach valuable lessons. But still, the cultural views should not be confused as the ultimate answers to the "terrible questions;" those must be revealed, as Brigham said "in open vision before the Almighty." This is one of the lessons learned in the Temple; that religion is revealed from God and His messengers, not just from scholars, trends, schools, etc. Thus it becomes us, as Latter-day Saints, not to feel we have "arrived" at Truth, and then await that great Millennial day. It should also keep Saints open to developments within the Church, rather than "fly[ing] to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all."[3] As Hugh B. Brown stated:
Have you seen people who have arrived, who have done all they are going to do, who are just going to heaven immediately when they die? There are going to be a lot of surprised people... Complacency is a grave danger in the Church as well as in the world. We need to be aroused to the fact that there is much yet to do in the matter of gaining our salvation.[4]
Truly, we believe in all that God revealed in the past, that he reveals truths to prophets today, and that he may yet reveal "many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."[5] This goes to show revelation can be expected anytime, even today when the Church seems largely doctrinally set. President Brown quoted an "ancient prayer" in response to the tendency towards prejudice; a hindrance to finding the answers to the "terrible questions:"
From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, From the laziness that is content with half truth, From the arrogance that thinks it knows all the truth, O God of truth, deliver us.[6]
Likewise, Brigham pleaded with the saints to seek God's help in discerning new revelation, or in interpreting old. He said our cultural biases can sometimes make revelations seem distasteful, but that God will assist us to know truth.
Conscience is nothing else but the result of the education and traditions of the inhabitants of the earth. These are interwoven with their feelings, and are like a cloak that perfectly envelops them, in the capacity of societies, neighborhoods, people, or individuals; they frame that kind of government and religion, and pursue that course collectively or individually, that seemeth good to themselves.
Brigham explained revelation can overrule rationalization based on culture, or what the Book of Mormon might call: the "traditions of the fathers."[7] What God commands might not automatically fit in with our immediate sense of "right and wrong." For example, Nephi equivocated over killing Laban, and felt remorse. This, indeed, is where some true revelations being misinterpreted, or false revelations thought of as true, can lead people to do terrible things in the name of religion. That the possibility exists must be conceded. Nonetheless, God's ways are not man's ways (see Isaiah 55:8):
That which you once considered, perhaps, to be a non-essential in religion, you now consider to be very essential. That which you once esteemed to be unbecoming in society, has become so interwoven in your feelings, by being accustomed to it, that it ultimately appears quite rational to you (JD 3:80-96).
Oh, say, what is truth? It is things as they are, were, and are to come (see D&C 93:24). In other words, it is the answers to the "terrible questions." The answers to these questions are found in the restored gospel, and begin with the actual Fatherhood of God. Hugh B. Brown:
To have faith in a personal God, who can be referred to as "Father," gives man a sense of dignity and holds before him an ideal towards which to strive. Continuing in that faith one gets progressive answers to the disturbing questions of source, purpose, and destiny...
Surely, an open-minded and courageous study of Him and His divine plan with respect to our salvation will be the most interesting and permanently rewarding of all ventures into the vast realms which invite man's questing spirit.[8]
Now that we've come to understand more about the "terrible questions," Brigham will tell us more about the role of revelation, and the importance of missionary work.

More from this long discourse to come tomorrow, including discussion on: -Necessity and nature of prophets, The responsibility and proper methods of preaching the gospel, The gospel being preached from the beginning, Universalism  

Footnotes:  

[1] "Abraham's Temple Drama" from The Temple in Time and Eternity by Hugh W. Nibley pp. 1–42.  

[2] Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, pg. 276. 
 
[3] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg. 331. I recently discussed this concept with a girl who has left the church due to, among other things, changes to the LDS Temple endowment. My explanation was that if I were to view the endowment as a sort of secret recipe, or a set magic spell, I would be more concerned with changes to the endowment. Conversely, if I view God as a being who will adapt revelation to assist His children make internal changes, the external ways in which these changes are made can fluctuate as He deems necessary without making me worry about said changes.  

[4] Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, pg. 167-169.  

[5] Pearl of Great Price, Articles of Faith, v.9  

[6] Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, pg. 276. 

[7] "Traditions of fathers" appears multiple times in the Book of Mormon, and while generally applied to the "foolish" traditions, the concept also applied to apostate Nephites, who had forsaken the true religion. (Compare the mocking of Korihor in Alma 30:16 with the pleading of Alma in Alma 9:8)  

[8] Hugh B. Brown, The Abundant Life, pg. 277, 280