Believe all things

I have never heard of a man being damned for believing too much.

– Joseph Smith

In the 13th Article of Faith, Joseph Smith writes that as Latter-day Saints, we believe that “we believe all things.”

What exactly does that mean?

Our religion is governed by rigid orthodoxy. Not only do many of the higher blessings involved require a consistent belief in Mormon orthodoxy (per the temple recommend interview), the very possibility of entrance into our Church necessitates a desire to live Mormon cultural standards for a period of time before they even integrate into the community through the rite of baptism. Just as much as we emphasize a need to do the right things, we also firmly insist that we must also believe the right things (and conversely, we must also reject a belief in the wrong things).

Elder Robert C. Oaks, in the July 2005 Ensign article titled Believe All Things, not surprisingly writes a very orthodox interpretation of the phrase “believe all things”:

For us, to “believe all things” means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations. It means that in making spiritual commitments, we are prepared to hold nothing back. It means we are ready to consecrate our lives to the work of the kingdom.

I find the answer less than satisfactory, however. This is not to say that Elder Oaks’ definition is wrong; the desire to consecrate our lives to God, to eventually defeat doubt and grow faith into knowledge makes up a large part of our daily lives. However, in light of the context of the 13th Article of Faith, however, I do find Elder Oaks’ definition incomplete.

The 13th Article of Faith reads in its entirety:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things (Emphasis added).

Joseph Smith seems to imply that there is little distinction between “good” things and “Mormon” things. If something is good (or as Joseph puts it more succinctly, virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy), then it automatically falls under the auspices of Mormon theology, thought, and culture.

So is this what it means, to believe all things? We are supposed to spend our lives seeking for that which is good – but what does it mean to be good? We are supposed to spend our lives seeking to improve and influence the world for good – but what does it mean to do good? I have no doubt that a strong connection between thought and action exists, but what does it mean to have good thoughts and good actions? As a Church, we acknowledge that there lies many a good thing beyond our cultural borders – so how do we acquire it? And perhaps most importantly, could it be possible that what is good for one person is not good for another? How do we go about believing all things?

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2 responses to “Believe all things

  1. Davey

    A friend of mine, Michael Hicks, wrote this several years ago for a Sunstone Symposium address. I love it, and it pretty directly relates to what you’re talking about. (And sorry for the super-long comment.)

    “The Admonition of Paul”

    I joined the LDS church in December 1973 after reading the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Answers to Gospel Questions, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, numerous pamphlets, and of course the book that actually got me interested in the church in the first place: Walter Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults, whose treatment of Mormonism seemed so salacious that I had to go to some “inside” Mormon sources for balance. I read it and thought, “Well, I wouldn’t go to a Nazi for an explanation of Judaism–I’d go to a Jew.” Just so with Walter Martin’s explanation of Mormonism: he essentially drove me to read the orthodox Mormon books.

    It was not easy to accept or even comprehend all the LDS doctrines I encountered in those books. But I could always come back to Joseph Smith’s Articles of Faith: they were succinct and simple and seemed to tie me back to my religious roots, especially in the thirteenth article, which spoke of one of my Christian heroes, the Apostle Paul. The article reads: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

    Since 1973 I have heard that particular article of faith quoted over the pulpit thousands of times. When I hear it actually talked about, the talk is usually concerning virtue or honesty, or the pursuit of excellence, or seeking for the best that life has to offer. But no one has ever mentioned “the admonition of Paul” that this article of faith says we follow. Indeed, the three main books about the Articles of Faith* contain no mention of that phrase “we may say we follow the admonition of Paul.” So I want to talk about it today.

    Actually _two_ admonitions of Paul are paraphrased in this article of faith. The first, of course, and the much better known is from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter. Love, Paul says, “believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Joseph Smith does not mention love in this article of faith, just those words from its definition. But I am certain that his bible-trained hearers understood the allusion by recalling the whole context. We follow the admonition of Paul about love by believing, hoping, and enduring all things.

    I believe Joseph strategically chose to start with the Pauline “admonition” to love: believing all things because that is what the Articles of Faith keep talking about–“we believe” this, “we believe” that, and so forth. Here, in the last article of faith he says, “We believe all things . . .” or in other words we follow the admonition of Paul to love in a particularly profound way.

    What about love requires us to believe all things? Unfortunately, it is something people like me inherently resist. If anything, we question all things, because to believe promiscuously, we feel, is to foster a kind of gullibility that almost always brings on personal disaster.

    But various translators and commentators have helped me understand this: love is all-believing, meaning that there is nothing it refuses to believe, because love is willing to believe all manner of things, not excluding anything, good or bad. That notion of being willing to accept all the things presented to the faithful mind was very important to Joseph Smith, who kept testing the limits of faith by upturning people’s existing beliefs. For Joseph, true faith can accept anything and everything because, as he once remarked, “I never hear of a man being condemned for believing too much–they are only condemned for unbelief.”

    If so, we must accept the risks of gullibility so as to avoid the risk of condemnation before God. We have to swallow a charlatan or two, a business scam or two, if we are to be loving people, and indeed follow the Sermon on the Mount, which is as hard to swallow as any document ever written. Those risks, though, may explain why belief, hope, and endurance are in that particular order: we believe all things, but sometimes belief fades to hope, and when hope fades we are left with endurance. All because we love.

    Now the second admonition of Paul, the less familiar one, comprises the rest of the article of faith (“If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things”). Those words, like the previous “admonition” about love, use just a portion of a passage by Paul. Since Joseph’s readers at the time would have recognized it, that portion is all he needed to cite.

    Here is the full citation, from Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

    As you see, Joseph quotes only four terms from Paul’s statement: virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy. It is the last part of this article of faith, though, that most often gets quoted–“we seek after these things.” In other words, we go out and find things that are not only virtuous, but also beautiful, not only beautiful, but well-thought of (not always the same, because much art, for example, is not “beautiful” or meant to be, but is still well-spoken of).

    This “seeking after” was such a startling and attractive idea to me when I first looked into Mormonism. Before then, for example, I had to hide the fact that I’d gone to a Segovia concert from my zealous evangelical friends because they would have thought it selfish and worldly of me. This article of faith suggested that Mormons could and should pursue excellence in all its embodiments, a notion foreign to the Christian fundamentalism in which I’d been raised.

    Nevertheless, it is only through knowing Paul’s admonition in Philippians that we know what to do with these good things when we find them. What does he say? “Think on these things.”

    What this second admonition of Paul suggests to me is that it is not enough to believe, hope, and endure. We also need to think–which sometimes means thinking out loud, another hazardous task. But one that indeed should give hope to people like me.

    You probably know that other authors before Joseph Smith had attempted to formulate articles of faith for the church. They published them in tracts and pamphlets and books before Joseph Smith took up the task. By the time he did, every one of the first twelve articles had appeared in some form among the works of others. Joseph essentially anthologized those earlier statements, yet added one more to complete the set.

    For me it is in this one that Joseph adds the one truly novel and yet fundamental thought not expressed by the previous twelve. Here, by invoking the twofold admonition of Paul, Joseph in effect says: we believe in love and thought–the kind of love that risks gullibility for the sake of kindness and the kind of thought that risks unkindness for the sake of truth.

    • Ted

      I liked that a lot! Thanks for posting that; it really helped. What a paradoxical ending, though. The Thomastic mind of mine wants to categorize which admonition is superior when the two clash together, but something whispers in my mind that such a simplistic, orderly categorization is probably nigh impossible.

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