Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth

Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with what I like to call "The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth." It's a hermeneutic that goes something like this:

If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith must be a prophet.

If Joseph Smith is a prophet, then the church he restored is the True Church.

If the Church is true, and Joseph Smith was a prophet, then Thomas S. Monson must be a prophet.

If Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, then it's my duty to go out and make sure Proposition 8 passes.

I'm not a philosopher or an expert in logic, but I think it's not too hard to find flaws in these kinds of chains of reasoning.

Now, granted, truth does tend to cling together. Truths in one area support and lead to and illuminate truths in other areas. Everything is interconnected. Still, reality is far more complex than what the Domino Theory suggests.

I understand why Latter-day Saints find the Domino Theory attractive. Especially for new members or for young and immature members, the Domino Theory encourages folks to persevere in the Gospel even when their testimonies are weak and their knowledge is sparse. If the Domino Theory encourages one to work hard, to apply gospel principles, and to keep seeking light and knowledge, then it has served its purpose.

But the problem is, the Domino Theory just as easily becomes a faith crutch. It can actually encourage rigidity and shut down thinking and growth. "I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, therefore..." Therefore, I should just march lockstep with what everyone else in the Church is doing. I should not think. I should not ask questions. If I encounter information that conflicts with what I think I already know, I should shut it out of my consciousness and deny it as untruth.

The other major problem is that the Domino Theory just as quickly and easily becomes The House of Cards Theory of Gospel Untruth. The House of Cards goes: if I find even one single significant error, then it all must be false. The whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards.

People who are content to let the Domino Theory guide their faith can't shut out conflicting information forever. And conflicting information they will find in abundance, because their testimonies and their approach to Gospel Truth are far, far too simplistic. The more simplistic our world view is, the more likely the world is to come crashing in on us and disillusioning us. And this, by the way, is a good thing. Nobody is entitled to remain a simpleton forever. That's not part of the agreement we made with God when we came down here... Quite the contrary.

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is not only illogical, it is unscriptural. Just a few key texts on spiritual hermeneutics should suffice to make my point. The hermeneutic described in D&C section 9 suggests that reception of truth requires labor before hand, it requires wrestling, and it requires careful listening. The Lord in this section essentially says, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If you don't do your homework, no revelation. The apostle Paul said “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5: 21); implicitly: "Prove all things, chuck that which is bad."

Alma 32, that great sermon on how faith and knowledge sustain and interact with one another, emphasizes how we learn truth by applying it, by putting it to the test. And Alma is at pains to point out that this is a process that only enables us to establish one truth at a time:

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing.... (Alma 32: 34, emphasis mine)

Alma doesn't say, "Well, now you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, so you don't need to work at establishing the truth of anything else. Now just do what I tell you to do without question." He says quite the opposite. His sermon on faith anticipates that the search for truth will be a lifelong quest. The Gospel that Alma describes is a gospel whose truth is established piecemeal, "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28: 10-13 and D&C 98: 12).

To borrow another metaphor from Jesus, our testimony is like a house that must be built on a solid foundation (Matthew 7: 24-29). And an edifice of truth, like all edifices, is built one brick at a time. That's how I've approached my return to Mormonism. Yes, I had a very powerful experience in which the Spirit told me it was time to come back to the Church. I've learned to trust the Spirit in my life. The Spirit guided me in my process of coming out. It has guided me in every significant decision in my life, and those decisions have worked out for the best in ways I never could have expected or foreseen. So when the Spirit told me to go back to the Church – quite out of the blue – I was surprised, shocked, angry, worried. But I had learned to trust the Spirit, so I started going back to Church again in 2005.

Did that mean I automatically assumed that every single thing in the Church was true? No... I've slowly been rebuilding my testimony from the foundation up. I prayerfully reread the Book of Mormon. I incorporated daily prayer and scripture study into my life. I gave up pornography. I started living the Word of Wisdom. At each point, my approach was, let's try this, and see what happens. In the process I began to learn powerful spiritual truths. I gained insight into who I am, what my strengths and what my weaknesses are. I began to learn that, in terms of the principles of daily living, what the Church teaches is more right than wrong. I found the basic edifice of LDS faith to be sound. I found I could begin to build my life on it, and as a result I could become a better, happier, stronger person.

I've taken the same experimental/experiential approach to the teachings of Church leaders. I listen to the talks at General Conference in a spirit of , “Let's see what I can learn from this.” If I hear anything surprising, or if something is said that I find uncomfortable or that I need to wrestle with, I think, let's give this a chance and see where it takes me. If I try something and it doesn't work, well, then I've learned it doesn't work. Do I hold a grudge against the leader who said that? Well, maybe he meant well. Maybe that principle worked well for him in different circumstances, but it doesn't work for me. That's OK. He's trying to help, I'm trying to learn. In the end, we'll get there with patience and work.

But if it does work, I've learned something new that I wouldn't have learned if I hadn't been willing to wrestle with something uncomfortable or unusual.

Of course Church leaders occasionally spout homophobic crap. Fortunately, Boyd K. Packer's out-of-line comments were quietly removed from the record; official statements were made to contain the damage. And still, I've learned so much from Boyd K. Packer. He was a major formative influence on my youth, and on balance I would say for the good. His teachings have given me confidence in my ability to seek and receive answers to prayers. He's inspired me with a profoundly democratic understanding of how the Church works and what my role in it might be. I've learned much about love and courage and forgiveness and faith from Elder Boyd K. Packer. Has he said things that were probably uninspired and that injured me? Yes. Has he said things that were inspired and that have made me a better man by listening to and following them? Definitely. Boyd K. Packer will be the first to admit that he is just a man, that he is fallible. And he has also said from the Conference pulpit that we are as entitled to revelation as he is and that we are responsible to seek the Lord's guidance directly in evaluating the truth of all things. That's the Mormonism I believe in, and he believes in it too.

There's stuff that I've tried that failed spectacularly. I did the best I could with the advice President Kimball offered about homosexuality in The Miracle of Forgiveness. I went the road of 1970s and 1980s Church teaching on homosexuality. It did not produce the results claimed, and almost led me to suicide. I don't have to try that again. I've pretty much proven to my permanent satisfaction that Church leaders got it wrong on that score.

A sort of corollary of the Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is the Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility. Now how many times do we have to say, Mormons do not believe their leaders to be infallible? This has been so well established in Church teaching that it's exasperating to have to keep repeating it. But both members and non-members proceed to act as if we believe our leaders are infallible. A sort of proof text of the (false) Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility is the Wilford Woodruff quote provided in a footnote to Official Declaration 1:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)

It is worth noting here that Woodruff is actually speaking to a fairly narrow circumstance: a circumstance in which a Church leader deliberately lies with the intention of leading the Church astray. Please note Woodruff's repeated use of the word "attempts" here: "attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty." That choice of words implies intention, a willful effort to discourage the Saints from obeying the Gospel as transmitted through scripture and the previous teachings of Church prophets. The full quote does not seem to address a situation in which a Church leader is unintentionally mistaken about something, in which a Church leader's knowledge of something is incomplete or inaccurate.

More importantly, the Wilford Woodruff quote must be considered in historical context. Wilford Woodruff said what he said in order to address the terrible confusion and doubt that had been created by the release of the Manifesto. Wilford Woodruff had to reassure the Saints that in ending the practice of plural marriage, he was not leading the Church astray. That was the context of that quote. The Saints had so come to view plural marriage as a bedrock, foundational principle of their faith, there were serious doubts that a prophet of the Lord could receive a legitimate revelation bringing it to an end. Woodruff was, in essence saying, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, that he was not leading the Church astray in making this major course correction. Did he lead the Church astray in ending polygamy? That's a judgment bigger than one human being could make; but it's hard to argue that the Church hasn't prospered since then, in large part as a result of that course correction.

Does that Wilford Woodruff quote mean that we must take it as an article of faith that no Mormon prophet or apostle anywhere could ever teach a single untruth? That seems contrary to my understanding of how God works through mortals. But that's just me, testing one principle of the gospel at a time, building the edifice of my faith one brick at a time. The truth is, no leader of the Church ever could lead the Church astray, so long as its members continue to apply scriptural hermeneutics to the search for truth, so long as they are willing to work at and test and try all things, clinging to that which is good and rejecting that which is false.

I realize that many gay LDS have had their faith shattered because of the aforementioned erroneous teachings on homosexuality. I had my faith shattered for many years. As I stated in an earlier post, this has been a stumbling block for me and for many. Does it prove that the Church in its entirety is false? That we can't trust anything that is taught? Well, oddly enough, it is the broad principles of Church teaching -- that I am a child of God, that I have the light of Christ in me, that the Spirit will lead me into all truth -- that have healed the anguish caused by those false teachings, and that have enabled me to grow and thrive as a human being, as a son, as a brother and, yes, as a husband of a same-sex spouse and a father of our foster son.

I do have a testimony of the Church. But my testimony goes something like this: I've tried gospel principles. I've tested them in my life. And so far, they work. They've brought me joy, peace and blessings too many to enumerate and too great to repay God for. And based on what I've experienced, I'm willing to keep going, to keep seeking and listening to and following the Spirit.


Reuben Collins said...

Unfortunately, I feel like some of the most ardent proponents of the Domino Theory are the prophets themselves. I sometimes get the impression that they want us to embrace the Domino Theory.

Rob said...

I can't hope to respond in detail to your post, John, nor do I have the time to explain in detail why my experience differs from what you've written here. But the "there are good things here so I'll go with them anyway despite the flaws" approach does not work for me. The gospel principles I have tried and found beneficial for my own life are all freely available outside the LDS church, without any of the unacceptable features of the LDS version.

No earthly organization is perfect. What makes the LDS one different from all others is that it claims a monopoly on divine authorization, yet it has just as many problems, errors, mistakes, etc. as any other "competitor." More, in fact, because having set up a uniquely higher standard against which to measure itself, its shortcomings and failures are all the more stark. To the degree that, while I freely concede you and others may find good things in its teachings, I can never again accept that it is what it claims to be: God's sole authorized kingdom on earth. There is just too much evidence to the contrary. Not "I feel it in my heart and my own life" evidence, but hard, objective, verifiable evidence. The kind that would persuade a court. To me, it is compelling and convincing.

I have found much greater happiness and peace for myself and my family elsewhere.

Sulli said...

I think the domino theory is what ultimately creates the proverbial "shelf" that so many ex-Mos talk about. "The church is true, the prophets are totally correct. I don't understand x, y, and z so I will wait until the next life to worry about them."

Rather than doing what you seem to have done and take things one piece at a time things just get stacked up. The shelf breaks dumping everything...

I do feel though that the church leaders themselves contribute to this. When phrases like "obedience with exactness" are pounded into one's head it does not seem like actual thought is requires or desired...

This post illistrates the very reason that I so admire your faith J G-W. You have done all of the work and every bit of the gospel that you embrace is because you have worked for it and own it.

Neal said...

As alway, loved your post, your thought process, and the amazing faith you possess. I especially loved the metaphor that each truth "brick" of our spriritual house must be carefully placed, one at a time, upon the foundation of Christ. Awesome.

J G-W said...

Reuben - I think you are right.

However, as I tried to convey in my essay, I don't feel the Domino Theory is completely without merit.

I think it is useful in the early stages of faith, when maximum effort is required, and minimum knowledge is possessed.

At its best, there is a kind of faith principle at work in the Domino Theory. If I've read the Book of Mormon, and it's expanded my spiritual awareness and has motivated me to make important changes in my life, this is a good thing. It's a clue, a hint that maybe there's good in the rest of the religion. Hopefully that experience of goodness motivates us to go on and keep "experimenting" with the word.

In this very limited sense, a testimony of one aspect of the gospel can provide what I'll call a provisional testimony of the rest.

But a provisional testimony is just that. It is sketchy, incomplete, and won't sustain us over the long haul. But it doesn't need to sustain us over the long haul... It just needs to sustain us into the next steps that allow us to develop a provisional testimony into a fuller, more complete, more mature, more complex testimony.

So yes... Leaders do promote it, and in the right circumstances, so would I.

But leaders also teach the principles found in D&C 9, and Alma 32, and Thessalonians and Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew... If you stick around in the Church long enough, you will eventually learn that a full blown testimony requires work and a hunger for knowledge...

STILL -- it is human nature to be lazy; to rely too long on a provisional testimony (or on the testimonies of others); to mistake belief for knowledge (Alma is very careful to distinguish between the two and emphasize the work that it takes to transform belief into knowledge!); and to let false knowledge lull us into arrogance. All human tendencies that the Gospel is designed to help us work on...!!!

J G-W said...

Rob - I guess we've each had a chance to share our positions with one another, and explain why we are each not convinced by the position of the other...

I hope you've understood my posts and responses to your comments in those terms: NOT as criticisms of the path you've chosen, but as explanations of the path I've chosen.

J G-W said...

Sulli - I've always LOVED your shelf metaphor.

I guess I would say I did (in college) reach the point where my shelf collapsed.

I probably did toss a lot of stuff at that point. But there was also a lot of stuff I COULDN'T bring myself to toss. That stuff went into a storage box and got put in the basement. Years later, I stumbled across the box, and realized how incredibly wonderful and glad I was that I hadn't tossed it, because there really were some treasures in there...!!

Ditto to you what I said to Reuben about the Domino Theory as a faith principle... I will say that there have been points in my faith journey were it was useful to obey without understanding completely. We should NOT, as a general rule, do this if we have serious moral qualms about obedience... If we do not honor conscience in the spiritual path, we risk doing ourselves serious spiritual harm, IMHO.

J G-W said...

Neal - love back at you! :-)

Bravone said...

Thanks for this post John. I am always strengthened by your faith.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Bravone... We're overdue to check in. Hope you are doing well...