All or Nothing
Posted by Matthew on January 2, 2014
At times people approach a concern about the scriptures as if their entire testimony depends on resolving the question in a particular way. I think of this as all-or-nothing type thinking. I want to discuss here why I think all-or-nothing type thinking is wrong.
Others here on Feast may not be interested in reading this post. They’ve already helped me work through my thoughts related to this on a couple of different occasions (see for example here, here, and here). The purpose of this post is not to break new ground but rather to sum up my current thinking.
A specific event prompted me to write this post. A Mormon neighbor of mine has had a lot of questions about things that bother her in our church both in the scriptures and with things the prophets have said. In a Facebook comment I said that, like her, I don’t agree with everything the scriptures say or a prophet has ever said. She responded asking how I could do that given what our Church leaders have taught us. She quoted Elder Callister’s talk in October 2011. Here is the relevant part of that talk.
That is the genius of the Book of Mormon—there is no middle ground. It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud. This book does not merely claim to be a moral treatise or theological commentary or collection of insightful writings. It claims to be the word of God—every sentence, every verse, every page.
I promised to write a longer response in a blog format since Facebook comments aren’t the best format for a full explanation. Beverly, I apologize that it took me so long to get back with you. Here goes…
The appeal of the all-or-nothing approach is that a single spiritual experience can establish that every part of Mormon belief is true. Despite its appeal, this view is wrong. Of course, the all-or-nothing claim usually takes a more limited form than the one I stated. It might be applied to only words of the President of the Church spoken over the pulpit or just the scriptures or just the Book of Mormon. But whether limited or not, life just doesn’t conform to such tidy boxes. We have to use the Spirit to discern truth.
The are risk of not living under the shelter of an all-or-nothing view is that we reject something that we ought not. There are two ways this risk happens.
First, we may reject something as wrong because our understanding is incomplete. We ought instead to look for a better explanation of what is going on. Just as we should try to understand those around us in the best light possible we should try to interpret the actions of prophets and the words of the scriptures charitably.
Second, we may reject something incorrectly, even if we understand it properly, because we are in the wrong. If I don’t accept this possibility when I am reading the scriptures or listening to prophets then I am wasting my time reading/listening. In fact, most types of communication aren’t of much value if I don’t allow for the possibility that I am wrong. And prophets and scriptures, because of their special authority, deserve especially careful consideration on my part.
So, in a world where I could be wrong and I could be misunderstanding something, is there ever a reason to reject a part of the scriptures? Yes, in those cases where I disagree with the scriptures and I am being as honest as I can and I don’t think I am wrong and I am trying my best to understand and I don’t think I am misunderstanding.
Here’s my own example. I am troubled by those sections of the Old Testament which, reading the text as honestly as I can, endorse genocide. I could either accept the fact that in some cases God wants people to commit genocide or I can reject that part of the scriptures. The Spirit testifies to me that God does not want people to commit genocide, which, importantly, is consistent with the message we see in a lot of other scriptures.
To reject the all-or-nothing view I am showing an example of how the scriptures are true and something in them is wrong. And though I have spent time explaining something I want to reject in scripture I haven’t yet testified that the scriptures are true! That is of course the most important point and I’ll end with that. But there are two more points of lesser importance I want to hit on first.
First, I haven’t said much about Elder Callister’s talk. My guess is that though he and I don’t choose to explain how testimony works in the same way (i.e. he wouldn’t think I am using quite the right words just as I don’t think he is) that when it comes down to it we both really agree on these major points: we both both have a testimony of the Book of Mormon; we both believe Joseph Smith is a prophet; and we both think those two beliefs are tied together. My guess is that if he stumbled on this post he wouldn’t tell me that since I don’t believe God condones genocide (and since the Book of Mormon refers to but doesn’t disagree with the Old Testament on this point) that I can’t accept the Book of Mormon as true. I don’t think he would tell me that I must consider the whole thing a fraud and leave the Church. But even if he took that very unlikely position, I would simply respond that my testimony of the Book of Mormon didn’t come from him and I’m not giving up on it just because he thinks I ought to.
This last sentence (the sort of worst-case thinking it has in it) brings me to the second point I want to hit on before I close with my testimony of the Book of Mormon. When someone says “this verse is racist” or “this prophet shouldn’t have said/done that” I think sometimes we need to step back and say “maybe the person who wrote that verse was racist” and “maybe the prophet who said that was wrong.” To me that is often a better response than “let me explain why this verse isn’t racist.” Note that I think this can be the best response even when there is a very good explanation as to why the verse is not racist. Why?
Let me give an example. Imagine a friend of mine in school is very depressed about how poorly they are doing in their classes this semester. Maybe they are so depressed they feel like taking their own life. I would hope that such a person could step back from their current problems and say “Even if I fail all of my classes this semester, there is more to my life than school. I can still have a great life even if this semester doesn’t work out as I had hoped.” Maybe the truth is that they aren’t doing as badly as they think and maybe if they really apply themselves they can still get As. In some cases maybe they need to be told they still can get the grades they want. But sometimes the right thing to say is “consider the worst case, now what?” Considering the worst case scenario can help us put things in perspective.
In the same way as in the school example, it can sometimes be helpful to just imagine for a moment that what a prophet said or what is written in the scriptures is wrong (even when it turns out not to be). This gives one a chance to remember what their testimony is based on. They can consider then what the right course of action would be if they determined that the worst case scenario were true. Once properly thought through from a worst-case-scenario perspective they may or may not need to go back and decide what they think of the verse. But either way we can put the thing we don’t agree with or don’t understand in the correct perspective by remembering what we do know—by remembering our testimony.
More than from any other book, my testimony of Jesus Christ comes from the Book of Mormon. I need real repentance and true forgiveness both for myself and for those around me. I am sustained by the hope for a better world and that hope is wrapped up in my belief in the Savior. I am grateful to the Book of Mormon for helping me gain a testimony of Jesus Christ.
When I read the first chapters of Mosiah, I feel the same as I do when I read D&C 121 or the Sermon on the Mount, namely, can people really read this and not believe that at least in some sense these words come from God? Whether they can or not, I know them to be true.
I could no more deny the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon than I could deny that I ought to help others in need. The same spirit testifies of both to me.
Certain passages of scripture are particularly meaningful to me. I remember the first time I was struck by the second half of 2 Nephi chapter 4 or the beginning of Enos. I remember the many times on my mission my companion and I read 3 Nephi 11 with people who had never read anything from the Book of Mormon before. I will never deny that the Spirit of God was in those homes. We felt it. They felt it.
Beverly and Kelly, I hope you figure out how to reconcile your concerns in a way that allows you to remain part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.