Blind Reason

Blindfolded Everybody knows that blind faith is a bad thing, right? I mean, we’re all clear on that even if we can’t really describe what it means exactly. Most of us have, at some point, known “that guy” (or girl, it’s a gender-neutral phenomenon). You know the one. Impervious to reason. A fanatical exponent of some faith (maybe even your own) whose every expression is one of devotion and doctrinal rectitude. Or the modern expression of the same impulse: a political partisan who clings fiercely to their party line and who knows their talking points by heart and can’t be taken far from them. We can see the potential for harm in that kind of devotion and we eschew it as dangerous and to be avoided.

It is such an off-putting phenomenon that even the accusation that you have blind faith is enough to send you searching your conscience for examples where you’ve gone counter to the party line. Nobody wants to be seen as a predictable drone or mere extension of some collective body with no mind of their own. We’re all individualists here, no matter how alike we might appear on the surface.

The Rational Man

And everybody knows that the antidote to blind faith is reason, right? I mean, the ascendency of reason over religion during the Age of Reason brought huge advances in science and improved the human condition. Reason was such an effective counter to the excesses of faith that for many people, reason has replaced faith as their guiding force when principles collide.

While it is impossible to live entirely without faith (there are simply too many complexities of life to question every assumption or taught truth), many strive to live with as little as possible. Nobody more so than the modern intellectual. Whether ensconced in a university or merely well-read and contemplative, intellectuals worldwide explore boundaries, investigate assumptions, and test hypotheses. And nobody can deny that this is a good thing, at least, not while enjoying the advances of science and technology.

True Faith

Since the LDS church places so much emphasis on education, it should come as no surprise that a great deal of effort has been made to rationalize our doctrine. There are scores of books, talks, firesides, and stories whose purpose (whether explicitly stated or not) is to reassure ourselves that we are, at heart, a rational people.

And that is as it should be.

We believe, after all, that God is the source of all Truth. So if there is anything that can be proven true, it is our duty to embrace that truth no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.

Reasonable Doubt

There is facts about abortion a fundamental problem buried in the above section, however—the concept of “proven true” is a troublesome one even before you get to the fallibility of all human endeavor. What we accept as “proven” can be tricky, and if we aren’t careful, we can end up in places that are murky at best. I’ve seen enough friends and associates of an intellectual persuasion leave the church to suspect that there is something almost deliberate that happens to those who pride themselves on their intellectual capacities. This happens too often to be mere coincidence, which got me thinking (uh oh…).

I don’t know if this is universal and can be raised to the status of a gospel law, but it is so frequent in my experience that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were. I have noticed that everybody who is proud of their ability to reason eventually finds something that they cannot reconcile with the church. It may be a passage of scripture. It may be a political call to action. It may be a new church program. It may be a conflict with a leader or church authority. The details are highly personalized, but eventually every intellectual I’ve known well enough to discuss this with reaches a point where they have to make a choice between their reason and their faith.

I’ve been there, so I know how painful this can be.

Pride Goeth Before…

I wasn’t being subtle above, so it should come as no surprise that I believe this is a problem of pride. Of course my reasoning is correct and my understanding of the principles involved complete enough to come to rational conclusions. The discrepancy must, therefore, be in our leaders (past or present).

Here’s the thing: we believe and sustain our leaders as not just followers of but as actual representatives of God. Each member of the church is exhorted to gain a testimony for themselves, from God, that this is true (and really, being a member is enough work that I personally don’t understand anyone who would go through it all without having obtained that confirmation).

So an intellectual who finds their own personal point of digression has a choice to make. Popular choices at achieving a reconciliation between faith and reason include:

  • Denial. Pretend there is no problem and simply go about your business and hope it doesn’t come up.
  • Delay. Hope a solution presents itself at some future point in time—hopefully sooner rather than later.
  • Compartmentalization. There’s a problem, but just because the church is wrong about one thing doesn’t mean it’s wrong about everything.
  • Justification. The church is wrong from some explainable, and perfectly reasonable, cause (cultural inertia, social conditioning, ideological contamination, whatever).
  • Crusade. The church is wrong, but I can help fix it.
  • Individualization. God has a general path for everyone else, but mine is different because I have a greater capacity/truth/wisdom/whatever.

People mix and match, of course. A little justification with a pinch of compartmentalization and maybe a little crusade if you get some support. Flavor to taste. The problem with all of those approaches is that they are stop-gap at best. The fundamental problem isn’t going to go away. The disparities between faith and reason will accumulate, causing your discomfort to grow over time. Eventually, it is going to grow to the point where you have two options: you can talk yourself into leaving the church, or…

Humble Pie

You can humble yourself, admit that you may, just possibly, be wrong. After all, if the church really is led by representatives of God and you are in conflict with it, then chances are that you really are wrong. Most people, when asked, will admit that in general they are human, fallible, and can be wrong. Theoretically, at any rate. It is amazing how few can bring themselves to admit this in a particular instance or give an example of it happening. Particularly when they are so sure that they are right. It makes sense and it feels so right. How could it possibly be wrong?!?

So let me ask you specifically (or, given that this is a blog post, ask you rhetorically): can you be wrong even when you are positively, absolutely sure that you are right?

This is “Only” a Test

Depending on your personality, making the choice to be humble and putting your faith in God and His chosen servants can be incredibly hard to do—particularly when you know that you are at least as smart as (and possibly smarter than) those servants are. Even more so if you have made proclamations that will have to be retracted. Would He really want us to do something that is so hard and that makes us so uncomfortable? Well, we know that God isn’t exactly reluctant to ask us to do hard things. And He is forever droning on about being humble (almost enough that you’d think He was serious about it).

Indeed, God takes our humility so seriously that He has been known to offer us occasions to demonstrate that we have heard Him and are doing our best to obey. It is this aspect of Him that leads me to suspect that He has set things up such that events naturally produce these occasions. It could very well be more important to Him that smart people learn humility than it is that His servants get everything precisely right every time they preach in His name.

At any rate, I know that, personally, I’ll take the word of the Lord and His servants over my own understanding every time. Even if I think they’re wrong. You can look at it as a matter of track-record (mine being pretty abysmal even before comparing it to people who are proven right time and time again), but really, it’s a matter of faith. I believe that they’re right even when I think that they’re wrong.

Blind or Dumb?

It’s a hard thing being left without reason to fall back on in our day—particularly if you are in a situation where you are asked to defend your position or decision. That blind faith thing, remember? Some will scorn you. Others will laugh. You may even face professional discrimination (and that’s a possibility even if you’re only a computer programmer). After all, how serious can you be if you are willing to admit in public that you will suspend (and/or have suspended in the past) your own reason when it conflicts with the doctrine of your church?

So let me close with some comfort should you choose faith. God really is right. Following His representatives is not only right, but will help you avoid trials and tribulations that result in more than mere humiliation. The only real question is if our leaders really are His representatives or not. If they truly are, then you have literally no reason in the world to worry.

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21. October 2009 20:43 by admin | Comments (10) | Permalink

Comments

Thanks for the post (and for pointing me to it--I've checked in to your blog from time to time, but I haven't been a regular reader so I could very well have missed this one without the heads-up).

I actually agree with most of what you've said. The only thing I'm not completely sure about is:

God really is right... The only real question is if our leaders really are His representatives or not. If they truly are, then you have literally no reason in the world to worry.

I think that's an oversimplification. I don't doubt that God is right, and I don't doubt that our leaders are His representatives. The only thing I question is whether all of their statements and proclamations in fact represent His views. I believe that there is evidence (both in ancient scripture and in more recent church history) that this is not always the case.

That is why I try to use both reason and the direction of the Spirit in evaluating the teachings of our leaders and determining how to live my life. It's probably accurate to say that in doing so I'm exhibiting symptoms of "Compartmentalization", "Justification" and "Individualization" as you've described them. I suppose it's also true that these measures have not ultimately allowed me to stay active and fully convinced that the church (as an organization) is exactly as Christ would have it if He were actually here leading it Himself.

But it took a great deal of humility to face myself after many years of stalwart devotion to the teachings of our leaders re: homosexuality and listen to the Spirit and admit that I had been wrong, and that there was, in fact, nothing wrong with me being gay. (Granted, the words of more recent leaders agreed with that assertion--but that's just more evidence that we can't always trust that the things our leaders say are God's Eternal Truth).

Maybe I'm wrong. I'll freely admit that possibility. But it isn't reason that's led me to where I am--I've prayed and agonized over every step and I truly believe that the Spirit has guided me along the way. I still have faith--I'm just careful about where I put it.
10/21/2009 10:08:12 AM #
I don't doubt that God is right, and I don't doubt that our leaders are His representatives. The only thing I question is whether all of their statements and proclamations in fact represent His views.

You miss the point. We've been asked to follow the prophet specifically and the brethren in general. We've been told time and again that doing so is important to God. There are many instances in church history that depict leaders showing meekness when confronted by church leaders, the most famous that of Brigham Young when rebuked by Joseph for something he hadn't, in fact, done. lds.org/.../index.jsp

Given this history, I don't see that it's relevant whether or not all of their statements represent His views. We've been asked to follow them. We haven't been told that they are infallible. It'd be nice if they were, but life isn't always nice.

But it isn't reason that's led me to where I am--I've prayed and agonized over every step and I truly believe that the Spirit has guided me along the way.

Your blog posts have an awful lot of reasoned argumentation (including source citations and research) for something that's all about faith. Are you telling me that it wasn't your reasoning that prompted your questions in the first place?

And everyone I've ever known leave the church has done so believing that the Spirit told them to do so (well, except for those rare ones who leave in a complete loss of faith). I somehow doubt that the House of the Lord is one so divided. I don't see room for the brethren to be representatives of God and at the same time members being led to leave the church by that same God. It doesn't compute on both a reason-based and faith-based basis. To me, the one precludes the other.

Indeed, one internal check I have on my own spiritual promptings is whether or not they contradict what I know the brethren have said. Those very rare times when I've been told to act against the direction of my leaders were clear, distinct, and accompanied by a spiritual rider that let me understand why.

As I said in my email to you, I can't say what God's position actually is. I don't know your heart or your relationship with God. I'm just saying that it looks like you are signing up for a world of pain and I wish there was something I could do to help.
10/21/2009 2:25:41 PM #
... I don't see that it's relevant whether or not all of their statements represent His views. We've been asked to follow them.

Ah. It appears, then, that you tend to agree more with Heber J. Grant:

"Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the lord will bless you for it..." (as quoted by Marion G. Romney, "Conference Report" Oct. 1960 p. 78)

... than with Brigham Young:

"I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied... Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, 'If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are,' this is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord." (Journal of Discourses 3:45)

Perhaps both views are correct? Perhaps the faithfully obedient will be blessed for their diligence (even if they occasionally obey a directive that ultimately turns out to be contrary to God's Will), while those who study each issue out and follow their conscience will be blessed for their sincerity and desire to do right (even if they occasionally err in their judgment and choose to act contrary to what turns out to have actually been a directive from God).

I don't know. All I know is that I am not able to take the huge leap of faith that would be required of me to follow the brethren on certain specific issues. If my contrariness was exclusively due to my own logic and reasoning, then I would agree with your premise that it was rooted in pride. But when I'm so firmly convinced that there has been inspiration involved... At least I can hope that if I am wrong God will be merciful, knowing that my desire is only to do what's right.

Your blog posts have an awful lot of reasoned argumentation (including source citations and research) for something that's all about faith. Are you telling me that it wasn't your reasoning that prompted your questions in the first place?

I'm sorry, I wasn't very clear in my first comment. I should have said that it isn't exclusively reason that's led me to where I am. I didn't intend to deny reason's part in my experiences over the last eighteen months.

In all my research and reasoned argumentation, though, there has been a significant amount of pondering and prayer. I've tried very hard to include the Spirit in my explorations.

... And I'm not sure that it was reason that got me started. It was actually the spiritual experience (the most intense I can recall) that allowed me to accept my orientation--and that also gave me a knowledge born of faith (not reason) that much of what the brethren had said concerning homosexuality was not true. At that point I had little to no logical or intellectual support for my new understanding, but there were things that I suddenly knew just as surely as I knew that God loved me. Then I began my attempts to reason and reconcile the conflicts that suddenly faced me, and I discovered several more in the process. But the initial conflict was between my testimony of the prophets and apostles and my (new-found) testimony of who I am.

(By the way, I certainly don't want to turn your blog into a forum for debate. Please let me know if you'd rather this conversation was private---or if you'd rather not have it at all. And for what it's worth I'm not trying to convince you--or anyone else--of anything, or to justify myself. I guess it just makes me sad that there are people who worry about the direction my life has taken, and so I explain and explain in the hopes that it will somehow ease their concern.)
10/21/2009 3:17:47 PM #
Perhaps both views are correct? Perhaps the faithfully obedient will be blessed for their diligence (even if they occasionally obey a directive that ultimately turns out to be contrary to God's Will), while those who study each issue out and follow their conscience will be blessed for their sincerity and desire to do right (even if they occasionally err in their judgment and choose to act contrary to what turns out to have actually been a directive from God).

Of course both views are correct. They are prophets of God and as I said, the house of the Lord isn't a divided one. They aren't both correct by pertaining to different people, though. They are both correct and should be taken to heart in each and every member. You cannot privilege one over the other, nor can you choose to believe one applies to you and not the other. Doing so would pit prophet against prophet even as it would pit member against member. Brigham Young's comment is clearly an admonition to strengthen our faith in the brethren by confirming with the Lord that what they do is right. Not right for you (let alone wrong for you). Right period.

And I'm disappointed to find that you've cherry-picked your Brigham Young quote. Brigham's meaning is particularly clear from the part you snipped out: "I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves, for this would strengthen the faith that is within them." Or how about going one sentence past your quote: "Every man and woman in this kingdom ought to be satisfied with what we do, but they never should be satisfied without asking the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, whether what we do is right."

Can you really imagine that Brigham Young is saying that you should follow the spirit as it leads you to leave the church? He doesn't even hint that it might be possible that the brethren will be found to be wrong. Brigham Young is telling us that we shouldn't be content that the brethren have the spirit and leave the responsibility to them. He is saying that we should strive to obtain that spirit for ourselves as well.

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in this blog post, but I consider both faith without reason and reason without faith to be fragile (which is why your implication above that I'm blindly following the brethren somewhat off-putting). I took it as a given that the population I am describing (thoughtful folks who might be described as intellectually inclined) couldn't help themselves from applying reason to their faith.

And whether from reason or faith, I don't follow anyone blindly. But I do follow and that means that when my ideas conflict with those of my leaders, it is me that does the bending--with a prayer in my heart to understand and accept. My prayers have, on very rare occasions, been answered saying that my leaders were wrong and not to sweat it. But even on those occasions, the spirit clearly intended that answer privately and admonished me not to make it a bigger deal than it was and to keep myself humble about it.

Now, I'm not saying that I can generalize my experience to you. I obviously believe you are wrong to leave the church. But I'm not so full of myself that I am in any way calling you to repentance. I don't know that you're wrong and I'm not your judge. I particularly don't want to detract from your experience in coming to understand and accept being gay. For the record, I felt the spirit during the testimony you bore about that experience. I wouldn't have you retract that for the world. It's your direction after that I worry about. It is human nature to take a good thing and make it bigger. We let the excitement of having discovered something true and pure and beautiful drive us to letting that something spill over into areas it is ill suited to. (I'm not saying that this is the case. I'm just saying that it has that feel to me observing from the outside.)
10/22/2009 5:16:29 AM #
So the answer is faith, but I'm not entirely certain how you maintain that it isn't blind.  I certainly don't envy you.  I know faith has it's part, and rely on it constantly.  Fortunately, though, since my personal relationship with the Divine has led me along a different path it rarely, if ever, runs *counter* to reason.  my faith fills in where reason cannot apply because of the unknown, and is confirmed by my relationship with the Divine.  But it doesn't *contradict* reason, it supplements it.  I imagine the internal conflict must be unpleasant at times.  One of the things I am most grateful for is that the Divine has led me to a path that makes me happy, and not as conflicted as I was in my youth.

I also have to disagree with the following statement:
<i>I somehow doubt that the House of the Lord is one so divided. I don't see room for the brethren to be representatives of God and at the same time members being led to leave the church by that same God.  It doesn't compute on both a reason-based and faith-based basis.</i>
To me, it depends on your premise.  If your relationship / view of "god" is that of an authoritarian who cares less about our personal development and more about keeping everyone in line, you're right.  It runs counter to that faith, and denies logic based on that premise.

If, however, your relationship / view of god is more of a teacher / guide / parent who cares about our development, health and happiness, it makes perfect sense.  Just like a great teacher who knows that the best way to teach one kid about Rome is to give him a book and have him write a paper, and for another kid it may be better to reenact Roman civilization with Plebes and Senators in the classroom.  Or a guidance counselor, familiar with a child's natural talents encouraging one child to study philosophy, and another to study architecture.  Or a father who encourages one child to play football, and the other to play the piano.

So the premise is where the faith comes in, and nothing can replace your personal relationship with the Divine.  I think the primary difference here is the role of leaders.  I tend to believe that no one can tell you about your personal relationship with the Divine but you and the Divine.  Is this faith?  Yes.  Does it run counter to reason?  I suppose that depends on your premises. . . .  Is it blind?

Wulf


10/22/2009 9:06:14 AM #
Yeah, Wulf, we've had this discussion before. Your view of “the Divine” is that he is a situational liar. We definitely have opposing viewpoints there. Even irreconcilable. I believe that God will not, indeed cannot, lie. That is central to my understanding of God. There's literally no way we can both be right, which is why we've been at a theological impass for these many years.
10/22/2009 12:48:44 PM #
I'm not sure we've had this discussion before, at least not to the point where you called my conception of the Divine a liar.  Let me know if I'm wrong, but it seems the only place where there is no way we can both be right is that little article of faith among the LDS (and several other faiths) that "God says that what is right for me is right for everyone" (hence, if we are both right, God "lied" about that).  Everything else is reconcilable under the paradigm "my spiritual path is right for me, yours is right for you."

I don't see it as a lie so much as a problem with communication.  It's difficult to explain, but I'll try.

Think of a father who has adopted two young children--one British, one American.  He tells them they can have dessert if they "clean the boots."  One takes out all the big shoes from the closet and cleans them, the other cleans and vacuums the trunks of their cars.  Does he deny one of them dessert?

These children both speak English.  Take it a step further to someone who speaks an Asian language trying to give complex instructions to two people from totally different cultures who have about a third grade understanding of the language.  As you know, different languages (especially very different ones) have nuances to some of the words that get "lost in translation."  If the two people catch different nuances, and the instructor loves them both, is he going to punish one for having a different understanding as long as the understanding is harmless?

Now take it infinitely further to the difference between the Divine's understanding of the cosmos and ours--between It's "soul" in its advanced state and ours.  There are bound to be things that are "lost in translation" due to our limited, and different, capacities for understanding what the Divine wants of us.  The fact that we have different understandings of It's wishes does not make It a liar.

Now add to that paradigm the possibility (to me it's a likelihood) that the Divine would give different instructions to us based on our individual strengths and weaknesses, on how we can best fulfill our mission on this Earth.  The Divine would not tell a paraplegic poet that his work isn't good enough, and that he needs to become a football player to fulfill his role in the world.

If certain people get the understanding that God wants them to follow certain leaders, and that EVERYONE needs to follow them as well, perhaps that is the only way that person can understand his calling in this life.  That is the way his soul works, and it is limited in its understanding of the Divine's will to this end.  The rest of the Divine's plan for everyone else is simply lost in translation, because that soul's development and natural "language" doesn't catch it.  It doesn't mean the Divine is lying to him.

And there is probably a reason for this.  That understanding leads him to proselytize, and find others that would benefit from the same understanding.  Souls that speak the same language.  I don't pretend to know the Divine's plans, but there is probably a reason for these difficulties in communication, despite the harm they can sometimes do.

I'm not sure I've explained this very well, but I hope it makes it a little clearer how I can believe that we are both fulfilling our mission on earth even when those missions are so different.  I admit that part of it is due to "blind reason".  Seeing how different everyone is, I have a very hard time buying into a "one-size-fits-all" conception of religion.

At the very least, though, I'd appreciate your not calling my God a liar.  I've never called yours a bigot because of the Church's teachings pre-1978.  I just accept that there are things about the Mormon church I don't understand.
10/23/2009 6:31:23 AM #
I don't want to get into it much but my belief is that Everything upon this earth is fallible and *God* is the Onnly thing that is not fallible.
11/6/2009 10:04:38 PM #
Troy Leavitt Troy Leavitt United States
Of course, there's always the simple and truly humble solution to the dilemma: that you could be wrong about your faith in Mormonism and its doctrines.  

It requires a very genuine humilty to admit to yourself that you might be wrong about your most central and cherished beliefs.  From there, it takes great courage to pursue openly the truth as expressed by the preponderance of the evidence.

For my part, I have found that those Mormon intellectuals who struggle so mightily to reconcile their faith against the evidence do so NOT because they have greater humility and courage, but rather because they secretly have come up lacking in those areas.  They are unable to consider seriously that their most cherished beliefs just don't withstand scrutiny.
11/27/2009 1:22:56 PM #
@Troy: Your argument is a tautology and, as such, unhelpful. You are saying that I can’t possibly have been courageous enough to consider I might be wrong because I haven’t concluded that I’m wrong. If you assume that Mormonism is wrong, then yeah, it'd be humble to accept that and courageous to act on that assumption. But it only really hangs together if you grant the base assumption that Mormonism is wrong. If it isn't wrong, then your whole argument falls apart and we're no better off than when we started.

Your argument further assumes that faithful Mormons are too weak to confront the awful possibility that they might be wrong. I get this all the time from people who want to say, essentially, that if I knew what they know then I'd do what they do. They want to "educate" me so that I'll know better and make the same choices they have. It's a kind of paternalism that I find condescending at best.

You are essentially judging what I've seriously considered and what I haven't based on the evidence of my choice to remain faithful. Even if you are correct, is that really how you plan on convincing me that you are right? Here's the thing: even if you are correct and I'm an intellectual coward, this particular argument seems like a poor way to convince me. Insulting my intellectual honesty may make you feel better about your own choices, but it's hardly a way to convince me to take your arguments seriously.
11/28/2009 1:29:41 AM #

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