August 24, 2009

Knowledge, Expectations, and Reactions to Difficult Questions

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 2
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.  

LifeOnGoldPlates: Some members of the church have described feeling shocked at certain things they learn about Joseph Smith or other aspects of Church history, including polygamy. Others don't seem to care, and others aren't bothered at all. Why the variant reactions, and what would your advice be to individuals who struggle to reconcile the new information?

Greg Smith: I suppose there are a number of reasons why some people react more than others to something they hadn't expected. There are probably as many reasons as people, but some general reasons might include the following (in my experience):

1. The context in which the "false" or "incomplete" view of things was taught—if, for example, someone came from a home in which Joseph Smith was made out to be superhuman, or virtually without flaw, then discovering that this is not the case threatens a whole host of emotional past experiences. One doesn't have to just re-evaluate one's view of Joseph, but one's view of one's parents, one's upbringing, and perhaps an entire world view. This is, to say the least, frightening (or at least intimidating).1

2. Many of us crave certainty. If we can simply read what a Church leader says, and obey without question or thought or struggle over some of the messy complications of life, there is a certain comfort to that. Realizing that a Church leader is not perfect suddenly throws the responsibility back on our shoulders. And, people often over-react to that sort of discovery. If they find that a Church leader was fallible in their understanding of a certain (usually peripheral to the gospel) issue, they suddenly decide they can't be trusted about anything, ever. It's a sort of all-or-nothing thinking that in fact does not change, but simply swings between poles.

3. I think it matters where they hear the new information, and by whom. Many critics are very happy to lead their marks part of the way and then abandon them. Context matters, and it helps a great deal if they can see others model how a revised understanding is not just workable, but actually advantageous to the old view.

4. To some degree, I think experience and secular education matter—for good or ill. From what I have seen, the people most at risk are those who fancy themselves intellectuals or "smart," but who are at best only at the beginning of their intellectual development. These people tend to have an exaggerated idea of how much they know and an overconfidence in their own conclusions. To be truly wise, as Socrates noted, is to know that you know nothing (or relatively little, anyway!) With more experience, people can appreciate the fact that they (like everyone) have their biases, cognitive filters, and blind spots—its then easier to understand why history can be difficult to sort out and even the evidences we use are not pure "facts," but interpretations made by people on the scene, and then in the present day. One still sees this problem in some LDS historians who claim to be "objective" or "functionally objective"—an absurd claim that betrays a complete unawareness of their own fallibility and an over-confidence in their conclusions. As someone trained in the sciences, I'm always amazed at those in the humanities who assume a pose of far greater certainty than a scientist ever would, based on far more nuanced, incomplete, and biased data sets. If science is "forever tentative," then history and the social sciences even more so.

5. I think a huge blind spot is presentism—most people just aren't interested in history, of any sort. They have, at best, a very vague historical understanding of even the most basic things. History is a foreign country. Those of 1800 probably have more in common with those of 1300 in their overall worldview and experience than they do with people in 2000. And so, people tend to project modern experiences and expectations on the past—Lehi is no more than an LDS stake president who happens to be in the desert, rather than a pre-second temple Israelite.2 We try to liken scriptures "unto ourselves," but often miss the step of figuring out what the meaning of the scripture was to those who received it, so we can profitably extend the lesson to ourselves. Accustomed to a society and culture of rapid change, we have difficulty understanding how foreign Joseph's time was to ours.3

6. Reactions to difficulties also depend upon whether people have any "rock solid" things they are grounded on.4 Those with a firm personal witness of Jesus' divinity and the Book of Mormon's truth may be momentarily rocked, but they are rarely shaken. When I read people who have left the Church over these issues, I'm always surprised at how superficial their knowledge of scripture (especially the Book of Mormon) seems to be. (I've even noted that tendency in material written while they were still active, practicing members.) Sometimes a difficult historical fact is a "wake up call" when we have been in spiritual slumber, just coasting along. It suddenly brings the problem to the fore, but its not like the problem wasn't grumbling along beneath the surface—this just brings it to our attention, and demands action.5 Many such things can do that—illness of a loved one, divorce, financial reverse—sudden historical awareness is just a subset of a broader phenomenon. People sometimes like to adopt a more noble "brave thinker" pose when describing it.

7. People who expect (even if unconsciously) to be "spoon fed" seem to become more troubled. Some expect to learn everything they need to know about Church history in their D&C class in Sunday School once every 4 years. If people have a long practice in learning outside of an official Church context, they are simply less surprised and less troubled by new information because they expect to constantly be finding new information. If I read a book and don't learn things and have my expectations reversed, I consider it a wasted effort. The most profitable way I've found to read scripture is to constantly ask, "What deep-seated notion of mine should be challenged?" The scriptures generally offended those who heard them—so, I try to be a bit offended too. If the scriptures are always confirming and praising what we think and do, I suspect we are not reading them properly. For me, they are an on-going rebuke coupled with invitation.6

Richard Bushman discussed this problem in his Introductory paper to the 2008 Bushman seminar. See "Bushman's Introduction to 'Joseph Smith and His Critics' Seminar,", August 14, 2008. The image is adapted from Edwin Hartley Pratt (author) and Frederick Williams (artist), "The composite man as comprehended in fourteen anatomical impersonations. 2nd ed.," Chicago, 1901, National Library of Medicine,

On first and second temple Judaism and the Book of Mormon, see Stephen D. Ricks, "Adam's Fall in the Book of Mormon, Second Temple Judaism, and Early Christianity," Chapter 18, The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson (FARMS, 2000). See also Kevin Christensen, "The Deuteronomist De-Christianizing of the Old Testament," FARMS Review 16:2, pp. 59-90.

See 1 Nephi 19:23. See also BHodges, "Liken With Care,", August 29, 2008.

President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of "reservoirs of faith" to assist us during difficult times. See Spencer W. Kimball, “President Kimball Speaks Out on Planning Your Life,” Tambuli, Jun. 1982, 38; or Faith Precedes the Miracle, (Deseret Book, 1972), pp. 110–11.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted a similar idea at the October 2000 General Conference: "We can also allow for redemptive turbulence, individually and generally (see 2 Ne. 28:19). Hearts set so much upon the things of the world may have to be broken (see D&C 121:35). Preoccupied minds far from Him may be jolted by a 'heads up' (see Mosiah 5:13)," Neal A. Maxwell, “The Tugs and Pulls of the World,” Ensign, Nov 2000, 35–37.

A brilliant little book that calls for better study of the canon is James E. Faulconer, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions (FARMS, 1999).


Gillz said...

"If the scriptures are always confirming and praising what we think and do, I suspect we are not reading them properly."

Well put. Again, it is refreshing to read all of these thoughts. What I really love about this series is the confidence and faith associated with researching what could be fearful or sketchy historical details. I recently read Virginia Sorensen's "A Little Lower Than the Angels" for a faculty book group, and one of the most debated topics about polygamy was the seeming secrecy of it, particularly in Nauvoo. It struck new chords of discomfort in me, particularly concerning research. Part of me wanted to be naive, erase certain new information I felt I'd been given, and go back to that testimony that seemed so safe and bright and good.

But then I realized that my testimony needed to go this direction....I had reached the wall of my trust in God. In order to feel safer, brighter, and healthier in my journey to exaltation, I needed to find a new bridge back to that trust, WITH the new historical details. They needed places to fit, new shelves had to be built, even if I couldn't label them.

One question I might have that I know has no answer to (but something I would appreciate ideas or comments on) is how confident I can be as a woman that God loves me as much as he loves the other sex? I know God has gifted me with intellectual desires, leadership abilities, and understanding (I'm still a kid, of course, but I know He's allowing me to think and feel and want to be like Him), but there is seemingly little scriptural evidence that women are equal to men to mind, spirit, worth. Is this where I need to rely on the modern words of prophets (those pep talks at Relief Society and Young Women meetings at General Conference)? Do I just need to continue to grow and trust as much as I can with the uncertainty that all really will even out in the eternities? That things might NOT equal out after all, and that there is something divinely innate in sexism? What IF God doesn't really understand/love women as he understands/loves men? Does this make sense?

It seems very selfish and quite unlike me to ask something like this, like perhaps I should be satisfied to serve where and how I can and not expect or glory or equal standings or other such prideful awards, but these essays are bringing to light all my deepest and darkest questions/fears.

It feels good to unearth these thoughts, and I'd like to think that I'm consecrating my own brain to trust that God knows my heart, created my heart, and truly truly loves my heart like no one else can.

Someone told me once that God was a wild man and you can't put him in a box.

BHodges said...

Em: the first bit of advice (and of course this is pretty absurd, because I'm a guy after all) is that you, as a child of God (something that has not been questionable despite its ambiguity in historic Mormon discourse) can confidently trust your inspiration regarding your personal status with God, and don't need any priesthood-holding men and so forth to assure you of your worthiness any more than a man would. I personally don't believe there will be something like eternally divine sexism, though sexism itself may not be something that disappears in the eternities, but may be something we eternally strive to overcome as any other challenge of progression, etc. but I may be something of a heretic on that point, who knows. It's probably easier for me to speculate about since I am not directly affected in the same way you are in the "here and now."

Moreover, there is something to be said for "experiential knowledge," which seems to be something we can't gain by proxy. (You might be interested to read Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy by the way.) So some feminist theology has discussed the ability of a male Savior to suffer for both men and women, and the simple response to that seems to be that Christ suffered an "infinite" atonement, so it would seem that encompasses gender. I haven't paid enough attention to the debate or discussion, though, it hasn't been real high on the list I guess.

When you say God created your heart, by the way, it seems to be the heart is truly a co-creation, much the way it is with our immediate loved ones now. Our individuality is defined by community, which is funny to think about. I was talking to my wife the other night about how there is this big kick right now for "rights" and "individuality" and so forth, and not so much talk of individuality itself being contingent on its opposite, or on a conglommorate of individualities.

That was a strange tangent, sorry. Maybe Greg will have something more meaningful to say. I'll keep thinking about it, too, I am at work right now though and can't really give all the powers of my brain to the subject yet. :)

Greg said...

Part of me wanted to be naive, erase certain new information I felt I'd been given, and go back to that testimony that seemed so safe and bright and good.

Yeah, this is an understandable reaction. Things are always nicer, at least initially, in the Garden. And, we all get thrust out of it in one way or another eventually. And this happens with our marriages, our relationships with others, our relationship with God, our intellectual relationship with the world, etc. Everything starts out bright and hopeful, but there's always a Fall of some sort.

We can get back to the tree of life, of course, but not through the angel with the sword. You have to take the long way around, and that involves navigating mists of darkness, dirty rivers, and jeering fingers from the combination shopping mall/brothel/amusement park/academy that is the Great and Spacious building.

there is seemingly little scriptural evidence that women are equal to men to mind, spirit, worth.

Well, the irony of a man aiming to answer this question doesn't escape me. So, use at your own risk, your mileage may vary.

Personally, when I read the scriptures, I don't really see "men," I just see "people." I think we may ask too much in ancient texts to see women's perspectives as fairly represented--but, that's a failing of the era, not a failing on God's part. And, men and women are really in the same boat--we're all lost, all fallen, all "less than the dust of the earth," etc.

Women get it worse, I suspect, simply because of the power imbalances inherent in a telestial world. But, it's worth remembering that most of the poor and the meek that the prophets are always championing (e.g., most of the Old Testament) included men and women who were likewise victimized by the power imbalances of the old world. And, widows and the fatherless got particular attention--because they didn't have a male defender against the rapacity of the telestial world.

As I said elsewhere, the gospel is everywhere and always Good News. If it is being used--or if we are using it against ourselves--to deliver Bad News, then we have not understood it or are misusing it. Everything is coming up roses; it is all much better than we are inclined to think or imagine.

(The only bad news is that we are weak and sinners--but, that ought not to be news; we ought to have recognized it long ago, gospel or no!)

I also have extraordinary difficulty attending the temple and seeing women as in any way inferior. "All are alike unto God," the Book of Mormon tells us, including "male and female" (2 Nephi 22:26). It is hard to gainsay anything that blunt upon which the scripture insists at such length: race, color, sex, covenant status, etc; any other scripture read otherwise is either a misinterpretation, or an error on the part of fallible men, scribes, or redactors.

As for God creating our heart--I suppose he had a role, but as Elder Maxwell and many others have pointed out, our minds and hearts--our selves--are really the only things we genuinely have to give God. Everything else is a gift from him anyway; ourselves, however, are co-eternal with him, something which was not created or made, "neither indeed can be."

The Little Drummer Boy was right--in a sense, the heart is all we have to give that's ultimately meaningful.

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