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.
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.
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…
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.