Tuesday, September 1, 2020

What can be counted on as “Gospel truth”

My late mother had a way with words. As a youth, I remember her once saying, “Finite man has no business telling an infinite God how He did anything.” It was catchy and it stuck with me but I wasn’t entirely sure of what it meant.

For a brief time, I applied this maxim to the scriptures as God’s word, inferring that what was written is what was meant and thus the final authority on all matters—this was before I became fully aware of my own naïveté. A lot of people view scripture in similar absolute terms and are often described as “literalists.” As I matured, became more knowledgable in general and about human nature in particular—and being mindful of my own need for spiritual growth—I gave Mom’s little precept additional consideration and it raised a valid question:

Who exactly is telling God how He did anything?

Embracing scripture to the exclusion of all else

For some reason, my memory places Mom’s idiom within the context of scientific knowledge being perceived as conflicting with scripture. My mother couldn’t be described as anti-science but I suppose she could have her fundamentalist moments.

Photo by Wendy van Zyl

Scriptural literalists have a tendency to be indifferent—and sometimes hostile—to scientific explanations about the universe. They look to the scriptures, point, and say, “It’s right there…” and elucidate what is—to them—the only serviceable interpretation of what’s written. It doesn’t matter if there’s an equally clear statement contained in those same scriptures that offers a deeper meaning, an alternative application, or what might even seem to be a contradiction or renunciation.

Their pronouncements are based on the most rudimentary and usually colloquial understanding of the words used—in their own language, of course—often without regard to their definitions, the original languages from which they were translated, or when those translations occurred. As if the uses and meanings of words don’t change over the course of millennia in one language, to say nothing of a 21st-century interpretation of a 15th-century English translation of a centuries-old Greek version of a Hebrew reproduction of an ancient manuscript transcribed from the recitation of a generations-old oral tradition. Oh, I’m sure nothing significant was changed—embellished or omitted entirely—in form or meaning from the first time a significant event or idea was shared around a communal fire all the way down to the moment it was most recently disseminated in a comment thread on a religiously-themed post on a social media platform.

There is no room in the literalist’s mind for nuance, metaphor, or any context that goes beyond that which is contained in their interpretation of the words they’re highlighting—even if clarifying text is separated by only a few verses within the same chapter. Case in point, many 21st century Christians call themselves “born again,” citing The New Testament of the Bible—specifically, Chapter 3 of The Gospel According to St. John—as the incontrovertible source of this requirement to go to heaven, limiting their reference to the second half of the third verse:

“…Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”—John 3:3 (emphasis added)

Ask what it means to be “born again” and one may be presented with any of a number of different interpretations from having experienced a “spiritual rebirth” to “accepting” Jesus Christ as one’s “personal savior”—exclusionary phraseology that makes Jesus sound like the ultimate life-coach.

Ask specifically how one can become “born again” and one may be presented with an example of a simple prayer that one need only recite to achieve salvation. In researching this treatise, I stumbled upon a web page that made the process even more simple by linking this “spiritual rebirth” to the act of clicking on a graphic representation of a button that reads, “I have accepted Christ today.” Isn’t the internet amazing?

Of course, Jesus Christ expounded on the original point by saying, “…Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”—John 3:5 (emphasis added) I guess trying to baptize someone over the internet is just too complicated. It’s easier to simply ignore any part of Christ’s teachings that require more effort to follow, whether it’s baptism by immersion, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, loving one’s neighbor, etc. and just recite a prayer or click on a link and be done with it. Those internet cat videos aren’t going to watch themselves!

The practice of placing emphasis on a single doctrinal point to the exclusion of an integral clarification by its own author is not dissimilar to the practice of “Gun rights” advocates to place emphasis on the latter portion of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,”(emphasis added) while conveniently ignoring the contextually significant introduction about “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”

Science and faith

My step-mother—who I fondly refer to, alternately, as “Mom: The Sequel” or “Mom 2.0”—once mused that, “Scientists need to recognize the Creator knows more about science than they do. I am thankful that some do.”

I think she's right... assuming that said scientists actually believe in a Creator. Scientists aren’t usually known for their theological beliefs. Of course, there are exceptions like that of the chemist Henry Eyring, author of “The Faith of a Scientist.” However, generally speaking, scientists are not in the habit of discussing matters of theology for the simple reason that it’s a topic that’s outside of their professional purview. Eyring certainly demonstrates that scientists are free to have personal beliefs but when discussing matters of a scientific nature, one can only report on those things onto which the scientific method can be applied.

It should be understood that this method includes—among other tools—observation, using our senses to perceive the universe around us, utilizing scientific instruments that allow us to detect and measure objects and energies big and small, far and near that we are otherwise incapable of observing directly and recording the information thus obtained. With that acquired knowledge and some healthy skepticism, scientists hypothesize, theorize, and experiment to better understand those observations with a willingness to make changes and adjustments to their theories when new evidence presents itself.

Many people who call themselves “atheists” often claim to base their beliefs on the absence of any direct scientific evidence that proves the existence of God. By couching their reasoning in scientific terminology, they infer kinship with actual scientists, known for their study of the cosmos, but usually without bothering to get their input.

The adage, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,”—attributed to astrophysicist Martin Rees, among others—would be pertinent here. Even the scientist Richard Dawkins—author of the not-so-subtly titled book “The God Delusion”—acknowledges his own limits, his ability to perceive, and to comprehend the universe around him, thus conceding that he cannot be sure that God does not exist and also preferring to call himself an agnostic instead of an atheist.

As for my Mom’s thoughts on the declarations of “finite man…” Whether or not God is ultimately behind everything that exists, the reporting of observations does not mean that the observer is “telling God” anything, they’re just trying to understand the world around them based on observable, empirical evidence. This is not a denial of the existence of God because the traditional concept of God and the question of Their existence is not scientific in nature, it’s a matter of metaphysical speculation, which falls outside the realm of the physical sciences… at least until scientific research has progressed to a point where it can actually observe whatever the phenomenon is that has come to be understood as “God.”

Disappointing observations

It’s unfortunate that in my lifetime I have witnessed a severe decline in the quality of public education in the United States. This appears to have resulted in a regression in the capacity for the general population to apply basic critical thinking skills in all manner of circumstances, especially when it comes to public discourse.

The increasingly competitive for-profit model applied to broadcast news—originally a requirement intended to serve the public—has lead to media outlets sensationalizing current events in order to grow their audiences. The consolidation of ownership of “local” television stations across multiple regions by monolithic media conglomerates has also lead to the mandatory dissemination of partisan talking points by local news anchors, who are supposed to be trusted by their viewers to present factual information in an impartial manner.

People used to tune in to “the news” so they could be “informed.” Then some station manager or network executive realized that instead of being a loss-leader, news programming could be made profitable by making it entertaining—or terrifying. News has become “infotainment,” available in half-hour chunks leading into primetime or given entire networks all to themselves. Now, news watchers are fed topical debates ad nauseam, where opposing views—even on matters of established scientific consensus—are treated with equal validity, ostensibly in the name of “fairness” but at the expense of intelligence. This has hindered the ability of the public to discern fact-based, reasoned prescriptions for needed change from politically and/or economically-biased justifications for inaction—or regressive actions—when confronted with socio-economic, environmental, and other issues of public concern.

There used to be a time when people in positions of power and influence could be counted on to set aside their political rubric and acknowledge the limits of their own knowledge and experience long enough to seek the input of experts. Especially the expertise of scientists because science has no ideological agenda; it is, by definition, the pursuit of truth.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering
Historically, for every researcher struggling to understand or discover something that would truly benefit humanity, there have also been outliers. “Crackpots” and “quacks” dedicating their lives to contrary and even dangerous ideas that used to be kept in check by an inability to publish their “work” in peer-reviewed journals. Nevertheless, the “publish or perish” philosophy in professional academia presents its own challenges

The democratization of access to information and the means to disseminate it through the internet has done wonders for technological and social innovation, allowing more research, studies, and ideas to be shared but it’s also given a louder voice to the outliers, helped in no small part by predatory publishers, news outlets eager to boost ratings, social media and the gullibility of a less-informed, undereducated general public. From this pathetic well, we draw the deniers of climate instability, “anti-vaxxers,” “junk science” hawkers, “flat Earth” proponents, “intelligent design” apologists, and other pseudoscientific “theorists”—and those willing to exploit them for the gratification of their own egos, the expansion of their own power,* or both.

When news outlets fail to call out flawed reasoning and misleading claims—or simply choose not to dignify them with a public platform—all for the sake of attracting more viewers, it results in people becoming less informed. They find themselves interested only in seeking validation for their own prejudices—regardless of their source—instead of objective truth, no matter what the costs to themselves or those around them.

Kevin Trudeau
Career charlatans, whose lack of credibility is well established, are still given platforms from which to pontificate their invalidated positions, and there will always be an audience for what they preach and it seems to be growing. One person who capitalized on this trend was Roger Ailes, the television executive behind Fox News, who is often quoted as having said, “People don’t want to be informed, they want to feel informed.”(emphasis added) Feelings often overpower reason, causing people to dig in when presented with information that’s contradictory to what they believe—or want to believe. Even if that information is in the form of empirical scientific evidence. When scientists are sought for their input, instead of being viewed as impartial arbiters of truth, they are sorted into whichever ideological tribe that their “so-called evidence” is most likely to benefit politically.

The late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with having said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” I wonder what he would think of how arguments are presented today, with uninformed opinions treated not only as equally valid counterpoints but as irrefutable—albeit “alternative”—facts, as long as they’re espoused by the “right” person, “correct” religion or “favored” political philosophy.

Where it all seems to have lead

It would seem to have come to a head in 2020 between the typical and escalating political histrionics of an election year, the coronavirus pandemic—which has been shamefully exploited for partisan aims—and a long-overdue reckoning with America’s racist culture. It’s especially unfortunate to see so much posturing and hostility coming from those who call themselves people of faith, including a number of outspoken Mormons.

Often counted among the informal coalition referred to as the “religious right”—largely dominated by “evangelical” Christian Protestants—politically conservative members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to stand out among Mormons that happen to find themselves in the public eye—especially the Congressional Delegation from the State of Utah. This has led to the assumption—by many Mormons and non-Mormons alike—that “the Church” is as politically “Conservative” as so-called “evangelical” Christians.

While the Church leadership does periodically address significant issues publicly—even to the point of lobbying for specific legislation—when it comes to party politics and candidates for public office, the Church maintains a clearly defined policy of political neutrality. However, it does encourage its membership...

“…to play a role as responsible citizens… including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections…to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church… may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.”(emphasis added)

Trying to be informed about issues has always required making a conscious effort to seek out reputable sources of information and qualified opinions. In the days before information—valid or not—became available at our fingertips, discussions about current events, popular culture and politics were usually in person, around the water-cooler at work, or the dinner table at home. People who didn’t care to be informed were less likely to engage—or be taken seriously if they did—and were also less likely to vote.

The passive way in which information is consumed today—and absent-mindedly redistributed on social media, often with under-informed knee-jerk opinions—has not only made political discourse more chaotic and belligerent, it’s made the very process of choosing our public servants vulnerable to outside influence. Today, the type of person who does not care to be informed is less likely to question anything that’s presented to them, will make little or no effort to verify its accuracy, and is usually indifferent to others fact-checking what they share. All of these traits make them far more easily and likely to be manipulated.

The solution to protecting oneself from being influenced by bad actors—regardless of whether they’re partisan shills or foreign operatives—is right there in the counsel offered by the leadership of the Church, ostensibly sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators by Mormons around the world: Become informed, civilly engage in the process, and respect differences of opinion—especially among fellow Church members.

Of course, it’s been observed that “…every election year the membership in Utah nod at each other with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, and preach among themselves an entirely different message than the one their leaders gave them.” Apparently leading some to believe that when a politician’s name is followed by “(R),” it must stand for “righteous.”

The divergence between policy and practice

It has been made clear by the leadership of the Church—at least every election year—that there's room for differences of opinion between followers of the Gospel on any number of subjects ranging from understanding Church policies and teachings to matters of civics, political and economic theories, social justice, ethics, and moral accountability; all of which can be fluid in their interpretation and application, as topics of an intellectual and philosophical nature tend to be.

Unfortunately, when it comes to their attitudes toward science and its consideration in public policy, many Mormons allow their political dogma to have more sway over them than the doctrines of their declared religion.

Photo by Sergio Flores
For example, government efforts to require the simple, courteous—and scientifically sanctioned—practice of wearing a face-covering in public during the Coronavirus pandemic was met with a great deal of resistance by religious conservatives across the country. This prompted the governor of the state of Utah to reach out to religious leaders of all faiths—including the Utah Area Presidency of the Church—to encourage their members to wear face coverings. This was over three months after the First Presidency—which includes the Prophet, Dr. Russel M. Nelson, M.D.—and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles temporarily suspended all meetings worldwide because of the pandemic. One would think that if the leadership of the Church was taking the pandemic so seriously, considering “the counsel of… government officials and medical professionals…” that the general membership would be mindful of that counsel as well from that point on. That if those same officials and professionals recommended the wearing of face coverings, Mormons would readily head such lifesaving advice and not have to be explicitly encouraged to do so by their Church leaders. I could not help but be reminded of the following verse from the Doctrine and Covenants:

“…it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant…” D&C 58:26 (emphasis added)

To those who would claim an exemption to such ordinances citing “religious freedom,” the Church has also stated:

“Religious freedom is not absolute. Limits on religious activities are appropriate where necessary to protect compelling interests, such as the life, property, health, or safety of others.”(emphasis added)

To say nothing of the Twelfth Article of Faith:

“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

This tenet of LDS doctrine is key to the Church’s encouragement of its members to be civically minded and “…to play a role as responsible citizens…” And yet, conservative Mormons have hitched their political wagons to the sanctimonious, evangelical ideology of the “religious right,” that seeks to influence the government through the election of like-minded politicians. Ironically, they run on platforms that provoke fear and distrust of the government—even after they have succeeded in embedding themselves in its halls.

While there is certainly historical precedent to justify Mormon distrust of government, the Church teaches that were it not for the right to freedom of religion, espoused in a “Divinely Inspired Constitution”—the failure of the federal government to protect that right notwithstanding—it would never have come into existence in the first place. This is probably why its members in the United States are demonstrably patriotic despite that history of violent persecution.

The influence of the company one keeps

The implicit political alliance between conservative Mormons and the “religious right” is problematic in a number of ways, not the least of which is the misperception—thanks to the more politically active fundamentalists among evangelicals—of an inherent distrust of science and often pejorative use of the term “secular.” These attitudes seem to be rooted in an antiquated “red scare” mentality that tends to confuse the concept of a religiously neutral secular state—the first of which in world history is arguably the United States of America—with state atheism, as practiced in the former Soviet Union and other communist countries.

In reality, the views and opinions of Church members are as varied as their ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. There have always been those who ponder deeper meanings in the scriptures and those that are content to take doctrine and prophetic counsel at face value—inside and outside of the Church. The impetus for writing this essay was my discovery of an internet forum dedicated to Mormons that espouse so-called “young earth creationism.” The belief that the Earth and all life on it were created 6,000–10,000 years ago in literally six 24-hour-days as described in the Book of Genesis. A position that does not conform to what science has helped humanity to understand regarding the origins and evolution of our planet and the solar system, galaxy, and universe in which it exists. It’s not unreasonable to surmise that those who do not accept a scientific explanation for the formation of the world in which they live, might also be less likely to accept scientific explanations for much else, like the efficacy of wearing face masks in public to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

This begs the question: are these antagonistic attitudes toward science compatible with the teachings of the Church—the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

If one assumes that truth can only be found within the structure of religion—or the words of its leaders, or just that which is written in scripture—then it would be very difficult to reconcile what one has come to believe as Gospel truth with anything that might even superficially appear to be in conflict with it.

So, let’s start with what the scriptures say about where one can find truth.

The Thirteenth Article of Faith says, in part:

“…If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
“Anything” would appear to leave the door wide open for the sake of seeking knowledge outside of one's religion. The article clearly acknowledges that the Church is not the only source of virtue, love, goodness, and that which can be praised.
“…seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” D&C 88:118

The “best books are not listed and the admonition to seek learning would suggest that the scriptures are not the only source of wisdom to be found on earth and we are clearly instructed to seek it out. As Brigham Young said:

“...our present being... is designed for the attainment of further intelligence.” Journal of Discourses Vol 7 Page 285 (emphasis added)

Limiting one’s sources of knowledge to a finite collection of ancient texts at the expense of all other works of literature, science, philosophy, and art suggests that one has embraced the false assumption that truth can only come from a single source. Such thinking enables one to embrace an attitude of willful ignorance, to deliberately close one’s own mind to new knowledge and intelligence; and is a betrayal and rejection of all the gifts of observation and reason that God has given us.

To those who have chosen to look upon science with suspicion and assume that its goals and methodology are somehow antithetical to faith in the Gospel—or worse, used only to serve ideological agendas—causing them to eschew scientific discoveries about the nature of our universe and existential threats to our planet, I again refer you to the teachings of Brigham Young:

“God has revealed all the truth that is now in the possession of the world…[The Gospel] embraces all truth that is revealed and that is unrevealed, whether religious, political, scientific, or philosophical. It comprehends all true science known by man…True science, true art and true knowledge…everything that comes within the range of the understanding of man… every fact there is upon the surface of the earth, in the bowels of the earth, and in the starry heavens… How, then, can we deny it? We cannot…If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it…the sciences are facts as far as men have proved themThe Lord is one of the most scientific men that ever lived; you have no idea of the knowledge that he has with regard to the sciences. If you did but know it, every truth that you and all men have acquired a knowledge of through study and research, has come from him—he is the fountain whence all truth and wisdom flow; He is the fountain of all knowledge, and of every true principle that exists in heaven or on earth…There is no true philosophy in existence which is not embraced in the Gospel, it belongs to the Gospel, it is a part of the Gospel…God, is the author of the sciences… and every particle of knowledge which man has in his possession is the gift of God, whether they consider it divine, or whether it is the wisdom of man; it belongs to God, and he has bestowed it upon us…”—Journal of Discourses Volumes 2891314, & 18 (emphasis added)

Regardless of whether truth comes to us through divine revelation, analytical contemplation, or scientific observation, it all ultimately comes from the same divine source and is part of the Gospel.

To deny scientific truth is to deny Gospel truth.

And yet, despite this counsel, there are members of the Church who have allowed themselves to become so beholden to pseudo-intellectual and politically-motivated ideologies that they dismiss, out of hand, plain and simple truths because they do not conform to their personal worldviews—or the worldviews of others that they have chosen to follow—abandoning their own free agency and God-given capacity to think and choose for themselves. Because it's easier to just be led by someone willing to offer easy answers to complex problems that appeal to one's own biases and has adorned themselves with the trappings of morality and an optical filigree of ecclesiastical endorsement.

For those that might want to shoot the messenger or take issue with the fallibility of prophets and their personal failings, unrelated to their roles in the Church; it is frankly acknowledged that—from the most recent convert to any General Authority—no member of the Church is immune from making errors and even speaking them from the pulpit. And when it does happen, Brigham Young, himself counseled:

“If you find an error here, I ask you to leave it, pass it by, let it alone, do not embrace it in your faith, do not practice it in your lives… if we teach anything that is good, receive it… If we have errors, do not embrace them.”—Journal of Discourses Volume 13.”