To the BYU-I Student Body, on Feelings and the Quest for Truth

Across the forty years since my conversion to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’ve learned a lot of things; one of the most important of those things is that there are many ways to be Mormon. I’ve written, tongue-in-cheek, about the categories of Mormons, but I’m in a more somber mood today, having just consumed the recent address given by Henry J. Eyring, the BYU-I university president, to the student body. In it, he elevates feeling over intellect, claiming emotion provides testimony that the LDS Church is true. That’s one way to live an LDS life, but there is another—an opposite—way that can also lead to testimony.

You may read a summary of Eyring’s talk or watch it here for context.  In brief, Eyring preaches two ideas: 1) in order to know the scriptures are true (or other things, I assume), one need only read them and judge according to feeling; and 2) if uncorrelated information about church doctrine, policy, or history raises questions about the Church’s veracity, a person should examine his life for sin rather than focus on that difficult information.

I’m all for trusting your gut in certain, limited situations, and I’m a big fan of self-reflection and repentance. Both have been touchstones in my life, the one saving me from trouble when full information wasn’t available and the other clearing out debris that stands between me and God, or me and a better me, depending on the situation.

Yet, the idea that we should judge truth according to feeling, even when those feelings fly in the face of intellect and reason, is contrary to the basic LDS tenet that the glory of God is intelligence, or that we glorify God by increasing our knowledge and reason. It also feels cowardly to me, though I acknowledge that a personal propensity toward non-intellectual matters may be a reflection of personality and have no relationship to cowardice. With that said, however, for the individual who quests for truth via scholarly pursuits or intellectual reflection, turning away from either is an act of destructive and faithless self-abrogation.

Fact is not the shadow of truth, but truth itself. D&C 93:24 reads:

24 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

A testimony of truth, then, comes with an increase of knowledge.

Interestingly, the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin posits that facts have no meaning until a human being assigns them meaning. A fact may dissuade someone from the Church, but bring another closer to the Church, depending on how our assumptions lead us to assign meaning.

Take, for instance, the fact that Joseph Smith was a polygamist who deceived Emma about it.

Does this fact mean Joseph Smith was a false prophet? That everything he said or did was a deception? Or does it mean that God uses flawed humans? Does it mean Joseph fell from grace? Or does it mean he was faithful enough to do the hard things God asked? The answers to these questions often depend on our initial assumptions (or feelings). But the reality of what was and is the only answer that qualifies as truth. And who knows that answer better than God?

These are hard questions, the kind that should bring us to our proverbial closets for prayer and reflection. If, instead, we ask only what we feel about the Book of Mormon stories or Joseph Smith we cut divine communication from our lives. My argument is less about the appropriateness of judging by feeling and more about choosing to avoid the wrestle with God, the very wrestle that gave rise to Mormonism in the first place. What are we afraid of?

Let’s add verse 25 to verse 24 of D&C 93:

24 And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come;

25 And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning.

In other words, to settle for less than complete knowledge of things as they were, are, or will be is to settle for a spirit of wickedness. To stop our pursuit of factual knowledge is to arrest our spiritual growth.

It may be correct that some Latter-day Saints worship God best by staying in one place, by not entering the wrestle. I can’t speak for anyone but myself. For me, following the recently given advice of the BYU-I president would arrest my spiritual progress. It’s not how I choose to be a Latter-day Saint nor a disciple of God.

Whereas Eyring recommends students question their worthiness rather than the Church in order to maintain testimony of the Church, I recommend a different formula for testimony-building. First, at all times and in all things, question whether or not your assumptions are in line with reality. Second, include Heavenly Father in every aspect of this very difficult work of self-purification. Only in clearing out the assumptions that clutter our minds, hearts, and yes, our souls, can we find our way to the pure truth that is the knowledge of things as they are and as they were. This, then, can help us understand and prepare for truth as it is to come.

Just as we needn’t be afraid of our loving Father in Heaven, we needn’t be afraid of truth, or the knowledge of reality. He isn’t afraid of it, but is the being who gives us our capacity for it. The relevant work of repentance is more than abdicating wrong behavior; it includes ridding ourselves of the spiritual interference of wrong assumption, incorrect information, and misunderstanding. This, then, is aligning our will with God’s; this is the hard work of progression. This is my preferred way to build testimony. It will be bumpy, but that’s the divinely appointed nature of the mortal experience.

Yes, there are many ways to be a Latter-day Saint.  I’m astonished, however, that anti-intellectualism is a way to be a university president.

To the students at BYU-Idaho I say, don’t let anyone gaslight you into a watered-down version of the saint you are destined to be. Seek truth unafraid. That is what faith looks like.

“One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”  Joseph Smith, Jr.

 

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One thought on “To the BYU-I Student Body, on Feelings and the Quest for Truth

  1. Pingback: What Was, What Is, and What Will Become when Religion Limits Itself? – Life Outside The Book of Mormon Belt

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