Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Dumbing-Down of Truth

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with 25 pieces. It would be pretty simple to solve, right? It might be fun for a 5-year-old, but probably not for you. Now imagine dividing each of those 25 pieces into 10 pieces, making a grand total of 250 pieces. A little more complicated, but basically still for kids. But imagine you divided each of those 250 pieces into another 10, making 2500. That’s more like it. But imagine that when you’ve finished your 2500 piece puzzle, your five-year-old cousin comes up to you and says “I could have done that, easy!” You’re confused for a bit, but then you realize that your cousin can’t see the 2500 pieces but, instead, only the outlines of the initial 25. He can’t tell that each one of those larger pieces is actually a collection of 100 smaller ones!
This is like the nature of truth. Like the meta-puzzle in my parable, each true idea implies the millions/billions/+ of other true ideas that make it up. There are nuances and new revelations to eternity; truth in itself is more complicated than a human being can ever grasp. Swedenborg said this a lot: like how a human body gets more complicated with the higher level of microscope you use, he says truth gets more and more nuanced the deeper you look. There is no bottom here.
We need truth – that isn’t up for negotiation. It’s the only thing that saves us from our ignorance and our dangerous misconceptions – “the truth will set you free.” But if we can’t grasp truth in itself, what does that mean for our salvation? Absolutely nothing; God makes up the difference, and he does this by dumbing down the truth for us.
This is a lot like teaching Sunday School lessons to young children. If you were to teach them out of the Gospel Doctrine manual, you’d get nothing but blank stares and cheerios all over the floor. It’s only by using really simplified truths – the “Sunday School” answers – that you can make an impression on their young minds. And this is, crucially, true even though those Sunday School answers are relatively untrue compared with the more advanced “meat” of the Gospel. We’re all like those little kids. Every doctrine we receive from a church (or even scripture) is a simplification that adapts truth to our ability to understand. If doctrine didn’t get simplified like this, we would be just as confused as those little Sunbeams.
What does this look like practically? Well, it means that scripture is always “clothed” in details appropriate to the time and place it was written. That’s why Genesis talks about a firmament (basically an upside-down bowl that’s also the sky) dividing the ocean from heaven: that was a commonsense belief to Semites of the time, and God would have done nothing but confuse them if he’d mentioned dinosaurs, quantum fields, and primordial ooze.
We’re just as naive as those ancient Hebrews were, and we are just as convinced that we’re not. We know just a little more than we did then, like a fourth-grader coming home and bragging to his parents how smart he is after winning his science fair. This is as true with our doctrine as it is with our science. Does it upset me that there was a doctrine prohibiting black people from receiving the Priesthood in the LDS Church for a long time? A little bit, but not much; racism was a political institution in the United States for centuries, and if God didn’t adapt himself to that racism, He wouldn’t have been received. And yes, that does mean God can consecrate immoral acts to be done to worship Him. He doesn’t like it, but He does it often to help people trapped in widespread cultural immorality to come to Him. Swedenborg said that animal sacrifice was like this: the earliest people hated killing animals, but when they developed a taste for blood, he co-opted that grossness toward a good purpose. The violence in the Old Testament done for God was like this too. If people can’t help doing bad things, God might as well “bend” it toward a good purpose. Otherwise they’d reject the good outright and dive headlong into their evil.
Something else follows from this idea: the differing doctrines of the world’s religions don’t mean that one is true and the rest are false. It just means that the same truth “put on” the different assumptions and biases of the peoples who received it. It’s not surprising that India – with its repressive caste system – developed religions preaching the eternal insignificance of an individual personality (like with reincarnation). And it also makes sense that the Judeo-Christian God was portrayed like a Persian or Babylonian Super-King: that’s what mattered at the time. This works with the Book of Mormon too: so what if it was written in King James English with New Testament idioms all over the place? That’s what people in 1800s white America thought of as sacred; they wouldn’t have accepted anything else. The Book of Mormon is weird enough as it is without the immense weirdness that a direct translation of 4th century Native American culture would have brought.
And you can think of the “planet” weirdness of Mormon teachings like Abraham 3 in this way. The worldwide spiritual mindset from the eighteenth century till the early twentieth century was “planet-crazy”: Swedenborg spoke of “the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter” (who, oddly enough, resemble humans pre-Homo-Erectus in his descriptions), Rudolf Steiner said that human souls originally lived on the Moon, and Gurdjieff taught that the Sun and the planets in our solar system are spiritual organisms we “grow out of.” So if you’re a Mormon and you’re self-conscious about your weirdness, don’t be. “Planets” were exciting at the time; God facilitated our obsession and bent it toward a good purpose.
But what does all this mean about the people who stubbornly stick to the literal meaning of Genesis or who insist, despite everything, that every General Authority is infallible? According to Swedenborg, it’s the intent that counts, and I believe him one hundred percent. If it works for them and they’re in a good place, you have no right to claim that they’re doing anything wrong. God speaks unto people “according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3), and that includes the language of concrete, literal-minded people. In the words of people who make fun of Christians for sticking with Bronze-Age nonsense, I hear nothing but pretentious intellectualism and more than a little contempt for the general mass of people. That’s why you’ll never hear me furiously raise my hand in a Sunday School lesson about Noah’s Ark: let people believe in whatever relatively untrue truths work for them, since that’s a luxury God gives to all of us.


  1. Hello,

    I just discovered your blog and it deeply resonates with me. I also feel that God speaks to our current mode of understanding as well. One thing that Watts spoke frequently about was the conception of God as ineffable- in other words, no concept can ever accurately capture God. One can only experience this truth. I've had a difficult time with the church's teaching that God is a physical and cosmic male parent. I personally do not believe this and it has caused me to question whether I should continue my involvement with the church. What do you make of this?

    1. I would suggest that you look into Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg was a mystic through and through - he knew of the ineffable experience of God you talked about, and he says everything Watts says and then some. But he also said God was a human being.

      Thinking of the physicality of God is the wrong way to approach the question of God's humanity. Saying that God is a human means that the infinite at the heart of creation is the same infinity you experience when you lock eyes with a lover. Saying that God is a human means that infinity itself wants to be known in relationship - not to have us abosrbed in it. It's like how you can love someone more in an embrace than if your ribcages were to merge.

      I'm struggling to explain this. But Swedenborg puts it better than I can:

      "Establishing contact with a God we cannot see is like trying to make eye contact with the limitless vastness of outer space, or like being on the lookout in mid-ocean but not being able to see anything but endless sky and sea.

      Establishing contact with a God we can see is like making eye contact with a person in the air or on the sea, whose arms then reach out, inviting us into an embrace."

      Keep up the faith. Follow what your heart says, not what your mind says.

  2. I appreciate that response. I believe what you described. But it is clear that this is not what church leaders mean when they describe God as a human being. They quite literally mean a body of flesh and bones. For me, it is difficult to participate fully and honestly in the church having such a different understanding of God than what church leadership requires. For example: when they ask if I believe in God the father in an interview, when I say yes, I know I mean something completely different than what they mean when they ask the question. This feels dishonest and for me, it is the crux of the problem. How to honestly live within the church while holding unorthodox doctrinal views.

  3. I would argue that they mean what you and I mean by "God as a human being," even if they don't believe that they do. Like you said, God is indescribable. Statements like "God is a human being" have an outer, crusty, literal sense, but they have a radiant, inexpressible inner meaning. But the inner meaning can only be expressed by what is relatively untrue. All our language is like this - it's all lies that point to truth - even this discussion right now. Not being conscious of the inner meaning of your words doesn't mean it's not there.

    I also would invite you to think of "a body of flesh and bones" in a less rigid way. Many mystical traditions believe in the mystical body of God. Swedenborg said this (and went into great detail; he talks about the "spirits of the kidneys" or those of the earlobes). Kabbalah talks about the primordial Adam Kadmon. Hinduisms talk about Purusha. It's a thing.

    In short, there's something deeper in the Church than you or your bishop or even the General Authorities. We're ripples on the surface of something much deeper that's happening. Learn to see through the surface to that, but don't try to reject the surface to get there. I hope I'm making sense.