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.