Apologies, clarifications, and assertions

The title of this post could very well be the title of my blog (or the title of my life).

Last night, I made a regrettable error. We had several people over for an impromptu homemade pizza party, and one of the parties involved were our local missionaries. When talking about a person who had been attending our church, they mentioned that he had moved on from reading the Book of Mormon to reading philosophy, to which I blurted out (more loudly than I wanted), “Well, that’ll never work.”

I then spent the next five minutes back-pedaling and hedging my way as some of my more astute friends held me accountable to this assertion.

I’ll admit, what I said surprised even myself. Just one year ago, had the missionaries told me this, I would probably had said, “Good for him!” I suppose this outburst reflects some massive overhauls in how I view religion, philosophy, and science over the past months, and it starts with my wife.

As many of you good, consistent readers probably know, the search for a Grand Unified Theory of Mormonism drove most of my thoughts and actions for the last few years. I thought and thought and thought and thought some more, trying to figure out how to create a consistent Mormon worldview from the hodgepodge of Mormon literature and thinking we have inherited from the last century and a half. In the end, this failed catastrophically, mostly because of my wife.

My wife is astute, and one of the reasons why I married her is because she knows how to poke holes in my arguments in a disarmingly cute way. Every time I would present a new idea that would be the one that would tie everything together, she would shred it to pieces. “There is no such thing as Mormon theology,” she would say over and over, and I’m starting to agree.

I guess I’ve mellowed out a bit in the religion front. Instead of looking for religious truth, I’ve been focusing more on religious good, and we have a lot of religious good in our church. We are in an incredible ward, and it has provided much stability for my family, both now and in the past. I am a better person because of the teachings of the Church, and I believe that the real reason for religion is not to explain events in the world, but rather a way to overcome the natural shortsightedness of man.

Humans are very shortsighted creatures. Science has proven this with a battery of tests that show humans will take advantage of short-term gratification rather than long-term gratification, even if it’s self-destructive and harmful. As humans grow older, I’m sure they saw how instant gratification hurt them, and wanting their children to avoid the same mistakes, they began to codify teachings and observations in life that evolved into religion.

When you think about it, at least for Mormonism, we have a terrible theology. It’s internally inconsistent, full of holes, and constantly changing. We have a difficult time trying to explain why certain things happen in life, especially bad things.

But as a way of life, Mormonism does a really good job. A lot of my friends mention that they could never live the lifestyle, but they admire the strong, happy families Mormonism usually produces (this isn’t to say it’s a guarantee, but we do seem to do a pretty good job in the family department). We appear to be perpetually happy (which some people view as smugness) and we tend to have strong, conservative, community and family-oriented values. Along with love your neighbor and God, we have prescriptive rules such as be clean in dress and language, love your spouse, prepare for a rainy day, get out of debt, take care of the weak, sick, and despised, and so forth.

The way Mormonism does this is it provides a reason, which we take on faith, to live life. We work hard to have strong, happy families because we believe that the family unit has the potential to stay together for eternity. We tell people to be loving and hospitable because you never know if someone is an angel in disguise. We tell people we should forgive each other because God died for our sins and we must then love everyone. We tell people to curtail sexual desire for maximum stability in human relationships because our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit.

None of these ideas really explain why things are in the world. They only give reason on why we should do certain things.

Philosophy is a different animal. Explaining why things are in the world is what philosophy strives to do. Logic, for example, is an entire specialized branch of philosophy dedicated to extrapolate truths from the universe. From time to time, philosophy branches into prescriptive advice, such as utilitarianism or Nietzsche’s ubermensch or the classical idea of eudaimonia. But for the most part, philosophy is dedicated to understanding why things in the universe are.

Science, for example, is philosophy’s direct child which now cruelly turns its back on its parent. Science takes the basic principles of philosophy (mostly logic) and applies it (via the scientific method) to the natural world. And because we now pay more lip service to science than philosophy, we have relegated philosophy to the dustbin, the direct opponent of theology (even though theology is simply using philosophical principles with spiritual underpinning – a desperate, maybe impossible endeavor). Many people see philosophy as a mindless exercise, a sort of mental gymnastics that is only appropriate for stuffy intellectuals, posing hipsters, or aging New Age hippies. This is a travesty, and it needs to be stopped.

I guess that comment I made was born out of my frustration at how people view philosophy. Philosophy’s main tenet is logic; science’s main tenet is the scientific method and empiricism; religion’s is faith. They don’t mix well. I cannot use logic to “prove” eternal families exist, and I can only observe the effects of the belief through empiricism. Faith in such a principle is all I have, and it’s what my religious belief in such a doctrine runs on. To me, using logic to ascertain prescriptive living is futile, just as I believe that faith makes a poor scientist. If you seek for “truth,” use philosophy. But if you’re seeking for peace, or happiness, or stability in life, study religion seriously, and all types of religion. And, of course, use logic and empiricism to determine whether it may be right for you. But eventually, no matter how you look at it, you will have to take that leap of faith. Using philosophy or science to try and find religion is like constantly, hungrily circling a chocolate cake, wondering if it’s right for you, but never actually eating it. Eventually, you must take that first bite.

But I apologize publicly all the same. I did not mean to say that philosophy is somehow inferior to religion. Philosophy, religion, and science all work together to somehow find a Grand Unified Theory for Life, and without each other, they easily devolve into soulless, destructive fanaticism.

I am, like everyone else, a walking contradiction sometimes.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Apologies, clarifications, and assertions

  1. Beth

    I politely disagree with your opinion on Mormonism’s “terrible theology.” I actually think our theology does a pretty good job explaining Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    That is all.

    • Ted

      What I mean by “terrible theology” is that it can be a very inconsistent theology that is hard to nail down. You could say our official theology can be basically boiled down to the missionary lessons in Preach My Gospel, which are succinct, internally consistent and sound, and has the official stamp of approval. But when you start veering into some of the gritty stuff like “What happens when one spouse in a sealing doesn’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom?” or “What is child rearing going to be like in the Millennium?” you have to rely on conflicting accounts of sermons, hearsay, or stuff that the Church hasn’t officially approved. Even things like “How exactly did the Great Apostasy happen?” (or even “When did it happen?”) will throw a normal Gospel Doctrine class into an uproar. We call it “deep doctrine” or speculation, which is the point – anything outside of the basic nuts and bolts of the plan of salvation and the four (or five, depending on who you are) bullet points of the gospel of Jesus Christ rarely has an “official” stamp, which leads to either pages upon pages of speculation and an attempt to unify differing opinions of past general authorities, or the basic boiled down, classic Nephi defense:

      “I know that he [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”

      It’s a fine defense in pressing forward through the ambiguities of life, I would say, but not a valid defense when trying to cobble together an explanation for Life, the Universe, and Everything. We’re pretty good with Life and the Universe (but not perfect), but when it comes to Everything, well, we just don’t know the meaning of all things.

      Also, as I said before, especially for our Mormon faith, I think a philosophically sound theology is both impossible and possibly even destructive. Our faith runs on the flexibility of continuous revelation adapted for the culture and time of God’s people. I would hate to be a Catholic apologist who has to square everything every pope has ever said ever (or explain how popes can excommunicate errant popes). Our ability to “start from scratch,” so to speak, for every new generation, or to even improvise according to prophetic revelation and good old fashioned common sense and faith, will, I think, be the key to our faith’s continual growth and success.

      You could say God made our “theology” very slippery on purpose.

  2. Beth

    I see what you mean, but I still think our theology still manages to have concrete answers to those stickier questions. Having an imperfect theology does not mean that it is “terrible.” Sometimes the answer is indeed, “Ask God when you meet him,” but I still find that our religion still contains more and better answers to a lot of those questions than most. I like to consider myself pretty well-informed about other belief systems and I still think Mormonism is the best one.

    Sometimes there aren’t perfect answers, but there are plenty of good enough answers to be had. And I know Brigham Young said some things about the creation of the earth that negate the fossil record. (we’re scientists in our family, so we like the fossil record) And I believe one of the prophets (Joseph Fielding Smith again, I think) swore that mankind would never reach the moon.

    Ultimately, never in the history of BYU has a faculty member of the geology department been excommunicated for apostasy. The same cannot be said for the BYU religion department.

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