Saturday, July 2, 2011

When Ideologies Collide

I recently listened to a Mormon Stories podcast on mental health and religion by Dr. David Christian, a psychologist from Logan, Utah. It was very interesting; although I don't agree with all of it, I think it's a useful listen that gave me a lot of food for thought. If you don't feel like going through the whole hour and a half, just know that it advocates a pragmatic approach to religion: focus on what works for you in your life, and if something is harmful to you, don't believe/do it; get away from an "is it true?" framework and into an "is it useful to me?" framework. This is, of course, a very modern and "liberal" approach to religion and truth. It focuses on the individual and makes her or him the final arbiter of a personal and relatively relative truth.

While listening, I immediately thought of President Packer's (to some infamous) statements that "Some things that are true aren’t very useful" and that "a lot of things that are true historically aren’t very useful and don’t generate happiness." [1] These are statements made by someone universally considered to be "conservative" in his religious attitudes. They represent a worldview in which ultimate, objective truth exists and is not something individuals can define for themselves. Prophets are the ones who reveal a pre-existent, eternal ontological truth which individuals can choose to embrace or reject, but truth cannot be changed. [2]

So here we have a very liberal ideology and a very conservative ideology both embracing the same proposition: the utilitarian value of information can, and should, trump truth. What does this mean that two sides that wouldn't agree about almost anything seem to agree on this?

Well, I've purposely overstated the similarities a bit. A concise summary of the positions does make them sound almost identical, but the ends sought are quite different. Dr. Christian's goal is the greatest (objectively quantifiable) present well-being of individuals; Pres. Packer's goal is the greatest sum total of faith in Jesus Christ and in his restored church. Both are utilitarian arguments, but with different "goods" to be maximized. Pres. Packer's position, I believe, would also be that limiting access to "truth" is a temporary thing: ultimately, all truth should be known, but it's a question of milk before meat.

But despite the ultimate differences, I think there's an interesting tension here too. Neither side is committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all the time. There is some compromise, of a sort, in both positions. These very liberal and very conservative approaches to religion both seem to say that a fixation on unadulterated truth can, at least in some situations, be opposed to the ultimate good.

Do you agree? Am I crazy? I think it's interesting to think about, at least.

A final thought is that Jesus said "I am ... the truth". Can we equate our approaches to coming to know Christ with our method of approaching truth? In other words, are there some things about Christ that, if we knew right now, would be more harmful than helpful? I think so, and it seems to be in line with learning things line upon line, precept upon precept. But it's also kind of disconcerting when put in such stark terms, huh?


[1] These quotes come from President Packer's PBS interview with Helen Whitney. He has expressed similar thoughts elsewhere: here's an analysis of another (purported) related statement of his. Compare some of Elder Oaks' very similar comments to Whitney: e.g., "It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord" and "But not everything that’s true is useful. I am a lawyer, and I hear something from a client. It’s true, but I’ll be disciplined professionally if I share it because it’s part of the attorney-client privilege. There’s a husband-wife privilege, there’s a priest-penitent privilege, and so on. That’s an illustration of the fact that not everything that’s true is useful to be shared."

[2] See the awesome hymn, "Oh Say, What is Truth?" (number 272 in your hymn books, number one in your hearts). And as an interesting semi-aside to this whole post, see a classic post from Steven Peck, BYU biology professor and science activist, titled "Oh, Say what is Truth?--OK! I Will" which introduces some conceptions of truth and how they might interact with Mormonism.


  1. I guess the way I would look at this is that there's a difference between the eternal truths of the gospel and gospel culture. There's a limited number of things that are both true and eternally important. I think we often condemn people for violating church culture and doing things differently when that is not an eternal truth.

  2. This is a little left-field, but your post made me think about how sometimes, we don't know what is "useful" or what works for us. I think that process of determining which actions, thoughts, and behaviors affect us positively and which affect us negatively takes a lot of self-awareness and even then, a lot of trial and error. In my mind, religion is useful in many ways because it has defined those things (as far as they are universal, I suppose) for me, and I don't have to figure it out on my own. When I have put those things on trial and actually used them in my life, I find that I am positively influenced.

  3. Amanda, I think that's the central question that this whole thing leads to: when is something really good for me and when I am I just being selfish? Which church statements are eternal truth and which are current policy? I too have been very much blessed by following the standards of the church and give them very great weight. But if I were married back in the 60s or 70s when the church was very vocally against birth control, would I have been OK to make a decision (with my wife) about what was best for our own family in that regard? I dunno.

    Universal principles are difficult because, if specific enough, there are often exceptions for at least a few, and it's hard to tell whether I'm rationalizing disobedience or receiving personal revelation. But that's what makes life fun, right? :)