Faith in ideas, or faithfulness to a Person?

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This entry is part 4 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

So why does this all matter? Because the difference between idea-truth and person-truth changes how we think about faith. When we see truth as a set of ideas, then religion becomes a set of doctrines. For example, when learn about a religion, we often start by asking, “What do they believe?” However, from the point of view of person-truth, faith is much more than a belief in ideas. It is a way of living in faithfulness to God (the Truth). From this view, when we learn about a religion, we might ask instead, “How do they live?” Religion becomes a way of life, rather than a set of beliefs or dogmas.

When we adopt the person view of truth, we have faith in God in the same way we are faithful to our spouses: by making and keeping sacred promises. The focus of our faith becomes our covenants, which includes loving and serving God and our fellow man. We might also covenant to believe certain things (for example, that Jesus is our Lord and Savior). Believing is also an action, after all. But the focus of our faith changes from a set of doctrines to our relationship with the Truth made flesh (Christ). Our relationship with this Divine Person changes our priorities and invites us into a life of discipleship.

The vast majority of scripture is not a list of doctrines, but a chronicle of God’s saving, rescuing, and uplifting activities in the world. This is what we would expect if truth is a person with whom we form a relationship. We justify our trust and faithfulness by sharing stories about our experiences with that person. The scriptures show from past examples that God has been faithful and will continue to be faithful to us, as well as how we can be faithful to Him.

Again, this has roots in ancient thought. Hebrew thought does not place nearly as much emphasis on abstract doctrine as Greek thought. For this reason, it seems sensible to suggest that a Hebrew worldview values orthopraxy (right conduct) over orthodoxy (right belief). As William Barrett helpfully explains: “The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek.”((William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York: Anchor Books, 1990), 76.)) This does not mean the Israelites did not sometimes expel heretics or care about doctrine at all—rather, Hebrew thinking simply prioritized action over belief.

What this means it that, from a person view of truth, having the right beliefs is much less important as living the right sort of way. A bishop living in Brigham City, Utah might have some eccentric (and wrong) beliefs about the Atonement, but still faithfully keep his covenants, serve God in his calling, and live out his faith in an exemplary way. From the person view of truth, he is more faithful to Truth than someone who has all the right ideas about the Atonement, but does none of those things. It is far less important, from this view, that every Church member (and leader) holds the exact same beliefs as everyone else.

Church teachings can change over time

Robert Millet, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, recounts a story in which a friend of his once exclaimed: “Bob, many of my fellow Christians have noted how hard it is to figure out what Mormons believe. They say it’s like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall!”((Robert Millet, “What Is Our Doctrine?” in By Study and by Faith: Selections from the Religious Educator, ed. Richard Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), 69-89.)) This is because doctrines that were emphasized in some decades have been deemphasized in others. The enormous corpus of sermons and literature written by LDS leaders contains (apparent) internal contradictions. To the extent that this is true, it is because doctrine—in the sense of an unchanging, abstract belief system—is not the object of our religious observance. Rather, the object of our faith is the living (and dynamic) God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But further, there have now been a hundred (or more) members of the Quorum of the Twelve since the Church was founded, with various backgrounds and perspectives. They have each given dozens of sermons a year in a variety of contexts over their decades of Church service. It would be surprising not to find internal contradictions in such a large volume of words from so many people. And from a person view of truth, this is not a problem—the purpose of their semonizing is to invite us into a covenant relationship with God, not to generate a perfect consensus of abstract belief.

Furthermore, the God of the Restoration is, above all else, a God who speaks. We do not only have records of what God has spoken, we believe that He continually guides His servants today. Nearly everything that we know about Him has the potential to change as He continues to reveal Himself to us. James Faulconer wrote, “Since Latter-day Saints insist on continuing revelation, they cannot have a dogmatic theology that is any more than provisional and heuristic, for a theology claiming to be more than that could always be trumped by new revelation.”((James E. Faulconer, “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse,” FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007), 179.))

In fact, this happened on multiple occasions. In the days following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, Peter had a vision in which God commanded him to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. This new revelation countermanded a lengthy history in which God’s covenant was seen as exclusive arrangement with the children of Israel. Peter explained to Cornelius, a Gentile convert seeking baptism, “Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

The prophet Jacob taught in the Book of Mormon that men should only have one wife (except in cases where God commands). The prophet Joseph Smith taught that God commanded him and others to take multiple wives. President Wilford Woodruff ended the practice of polygamy, and we no longer even teach the practice as doctrine today. If we believe that truth is a set of abstract doctrines, this might bewilder us. But if we believe that truth is a person who communicates with us within our unique sociohistorical contexts, this becomes more sensible.

When President Spencer W. Kimball announced that blacks would be ordained to the priesthood, contrary to decades of previous Church policy, a few members of the Church lost their trust in Church leadership. They felt betrayed because they believed that Church teachings were unchangeable. Elder Bruce R. McConkie was well-known for his controversial attempts to doctrinally justify the old policy. After the change, he said, “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation.”((Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God” (address given to Church Educational System religious educators, August 18, 1978).))

Idea-truth requires that the shared beliefs of a religion remain consistent across time and context. From this view, teachings that change over time cannot represent truth. If God communicates different teachings in different dispensations or cultures, we assume that our communication with God has been disrupted by “interfering signals.” If the current prophet contradicts an earlier prophet (or seems to), the authority of both prophets is called into question. We assume that the precepts of men have been, either in the past or in the present, passed off as revelation.

However, from a person view of truth, it matters much less that living prophets teach the same things as Joseph Smith or Brigham Young (or even prophets half a century ago). We have no need to disparage or dismiss the teachings of past prophets as wrong or foolhardy simply because we no longer practice or teach the same things today. In fact, there is no guarantee that we will find a universal set of doctrines that makes all prophetic teachings perfectly consistent. According to biblical scholar Marvin Wilson,

To the [Hebrew], the deed was always more important than the creed. He was not stymied by language that appeared contradictory from a human point of view. Neither did he feel compelled to reconcile what seemed irreconcilable. He believed that God ultimately was greater than any human attempt at systematizing truth.((Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 153.))

God guides His children within their contexts. What was prudent for one generation may no longer be prudent for another. His instructions are not the sort of universal, unchangeable abstractions that we privilege in the modern world.

We worship the Living Truth over the dead law

We have witnessed friends question their loyalty to the Church when prophets or apostles have drawn into question their political worldviews. For example, some conservative and libertarian members of the Church questioned the Church’s decision to support non-discrimination policies in housing and employment in the State of Utah. These members used quotes from past Church leaders (such as President Ezra Taft Benson and others) to show that current Church leaders must be in error. The person view of truth can help us resolve these tensions.

When the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness, they began criticize Moses and complain about their situation. In response, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Number 21:6). God then instructed Moses, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8-9). Those who looked to the serpent lived, but many chose not to look. Nephi, in the Book of Mormon, tells us that “because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. And they did harden their hearts … and they did revile against Moses, and also against God” (1 Nephi 17:41-42).

Why would so many Israelites ignore such a simple instruction? They may have thought Moses was violating commandments that he himself had delivered from God: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. … Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5). Perhaps they thought Moses was a fallen prophet, or that he was testing them to see if they would value their own lives over God’s commandments. Either way, the Israelites may have rigidly adhered to what they thought were the unchangeable commandments of God.

In this story, the ancient Israelites may have elevated the law over the Lawgiver. That is, they may have prioritized what God had said over what God was now saying. Perhaps Moses was teaching the Israelites the person view of truth, and the need for constant, ongoing communication with God. Perhaps God was teaching the Israelites never to idolize abstract systems of belief over continuing direction from the Living God of Israel.

There is a danger in this, however. Some Latter-day Saints have used these very ideas to rationalize a wholesale rejection of prophetic teaching and warning. For example, some argue that we should not become dogmatically attached to the Proclamation on the Family, because the Church will someday adopt a more enlightened view of family and sexuality. Some argue that same-sex couples will someday be able to marry in the temple, just as blacks now hold the priesthood. They rightly point out that prophets are fallible and can make mistakes; they wrongly assert that this means we should reject their current teachings.

As LDS blogger J. Max Wilson has pointed out, “Just like fundamentalists who reject the living prophets by following dead prophets, [some] progressives reject the living prophets by following anticipated future prophets.”((J. Max Wilson, “Rejecting the Living Prophets by Following Future Prophets,” Sixteen Small Stones, March 5, 2013, These two groups make the same mistake. They assume that if living prophets contradict dead prophets, the either the living prophets or the dead prophets must have been wrong. But this is only the case if we adopt the idea view of truth, which assumes that truth is a set of universal, unchanging ideas. If we adopt a person view of truth, then even if prophets someday make changes to the Proclamation on the Family, prophets today can still be teaching what is right for our times.

We need to clearly understanding what God instructs us to do, especially if we adopt the person view of truth. We do not have to mentally assent to the various rational theologies members of the Church have sometimes constructed. But we may be required to believe that God has asked us to live the law of chastity, or to compassionately feed and clothe the hungry and naked, or to share the Gospel with our friends and neighbors. Otherwise, we may believe in a god who asks for different sacrifices, and makes different demands of us, than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Loyalty to the Truth made Flesh means that we steadfastly teach others what He, through His servants, has taught us.

When evaluate the teachings of God’s servants against our ideological worldview (whether it be liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other perspective), we adopt the idea version of truth. In other words, the problem is not libertarianism, liberalism, conservativism, or any other belief system. The problem was with –isms entirely, when those –isms lead us to prioritize abstract ideas over ongoing revelation. This can lead to what we call, “ideolatry,” which what happens when we elevate an abstract system of belief (or ideology) to the level of “absolute truth.”

This is especially the case when we become dogmatic about our particular theological perspective, or hold to them with a fervor that defies correction by God or His servants. When we do this, we have supplanted the living God with an idea (or set of ideas). The God of Israel is not an abstract, universal, immutable set of ideas or laws, but a living, dynamic Person who communicates instructions tailored to our specific time and situation. Latter-day Saints can be flexible in matters of abstract belief while being resolute in matters of loyalty to God.

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