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First Published May 1, 2008
6 He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth;7 Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made.
32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free
We are emerging from an age that put value above all else upon the ideal of truth. But what exactly is truth? Is it absolute? beauty? freedom? enlightenment? facts? data? reason? principles? unchanging? Is something that is true for one person necessarily true for another? Is truth for ourselves at one point in time necessarily true to ourselves at another point? The terms modernism and post-modernism are used and abused in these kinds of arguments all the time. I am not sure what these terms mean exactly. To a certain type of person post-modernism is moral relativism and the devil, while to another type, modernism is rigid, unyielding, black and white thinking in absolutes. In the end I think both sides are largely talking past one another and caricaturing the other side. This is not my desire. I just want the truth.
What’s that you say Jack, “The truth!? You can’t handle the truth!” Perhaps.
For me, the problem with perceiving truth lies with the mind. If certain neuroscientists are to be believed, consciousness itself is an illusion. Our will is a delusion and trick of natural forces. While this is all quite controversial and will have people arguing for a long, long time, the limits of our thinking are less controversial. We will fill in missing articles to make sense of things whether it is sounds or vision, we fill in missing detail in an attempt to make cohesive sense of what we see or hear, even if it isn’t there. The simplest example of this is our blind spot, the hole in the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye. We don’t see that we can’t see it because our mind fills in the space.
But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that memory is the same way. Studies have shown that eye-witnesses are unreliable. An astute reader (Thanks, Glenn) pointed me to the one of many authors involved in 30 years of memory research that shows being fed misinformation clearly and reliably distorts our memory. Additionally, certainty itself has proven to be an emotion. We like to think of emotion or feelings and cognition and logic as separate but in reality they are intricately intertwined. If our own senses, memory, emotions, and logic are untrustworthy what does that leave us with?
Well I guess there is data, measurement, and Science. The problem here is that data and testing hypotheses requires interpretation of data. Data and measurements mean nothing in and of themselves. They require interpretation. Designing experiments involves something even more mysterious, imagination. Furthermore, it turns out we are learning there are limits to what science can know.
Newton’s laws of motion were long thought infallible until Einstein proved there are instances where they fall apart. However, to our experience Newton’s laws are good enough to at least get us to the moon. For all Einstein’s and modern physics work we still haven’t figured out what gravity actually is and what causes it. The fact remains, we can make little sense of physics without it.
Believing the Earth is flat works for what we need until we can fly around the globe or become so economically linked as a planet that we need time zones. The sun revolving around the Earth seems common sense to direct observation. However the assumptions mankind made based upon this were shattered by Copernicus, bad behavior ensued.
Heisenberg learned by equations that it is impossible to predict where a particle is and what it’s momentum or speed and direction of movement is at the same time, developing what is known as the uncertainty principle. It is somewhat esoteric but basically it means mass and momentum of the super small subatomic particles is apparently random.
It also turns out that understanding the universe itself has hit a brick wall, as there is a moment in time in Big Bang theory that all of our physics mathematically breaks down. It also turns out that we are just receiving light from the edges of the perceptible universe from so long ago that we truly have not the slightest idea if these conditions still hold now. If the power of a theory comes from ability to predict, I am afraid there comes a point where we are unable to predict anything.
Which brings me to God. Yes, I know it is a matter of controversy to his existence and there is limited evidence, but for me, like gravity to physics, nothing makes sense without Him. To the critic, religion and myth is just a defense mechanism we use to make sense of the world, true or not, much like the tricks of the senses I linked above. This may be. I cannot prove otherwise conclusively, but it also appears to me that the need to do this is an inseparable part of our makeup as human beings. If I am to ever abandon this part of my humanity, I will need one whopper of a reason to do so.
If we take it on faith that God exists, clearly, it is undeniable that we, as humankind, cannot comprehend all that God can comprehend. This being self evident, why even bother trying to learn of God?
I come from a faith that teaches clearly that God reveals truth to us as we are able to bear it. This is where spirit, intuition, zen, and all kinds of religious, mystical, or new agey concepts come in. In Mormonism, God wants us to know and understand him, so he comes down to our level and opens truth to our mind as we are prepared, as we seek it, as we will let him, and as we exercise faith.
This communication is described as concepts that enlarge the soul, burn within us, bring inner peace, open our understanding, or ring true. It is subjective, but more than emotion in my experience. I don’t believe we yet have any way to throw out the subjective and inner workings of the mind out as invalid. It seems plausible that, like Newtonian physics, this is good enough for God’s purposes. This method of obtaining truth is messy to be sure. It leads different people in seemingly different directions. Religion has historically led many to conflict, violence, abuse, and tyranny all done in God’s name.
In spite of all of this, I still feel that revelation is central to how we obtain the intangible truths of our existence. There is a way to avoid the hazards. The key is humility. We have faith and hope in what we have learned, but we also realize that our picture is imperfect, as Paul wrote, we see through a “glass darkly”. We do not force our understanding upon or denigrate the ideas others who disagree. Instead we share what we believe and listen as others do the same.
When we find something that enlarges our soul, stretches our mind, and enriches our life, I believe we have to hold onto it. To refuse to do so is to betray ourselves. I believe we have to remain humble, ready to accept there may be many particulars in which we are mistaken, but I also maintain faith that core truths will remain. We can learn much from diversity. Different cultures, different faiths, different perspectives are a strength when it comes to learning truth, if we can just allow ourselves to glean from them. It is a tricky balance. Too often people act out of the fear that to acknowledge the other is to deny yourself. If there is one observation I have made in life it is that fear can make Man one ugly animal.
I believe that spiritual truth is not linear or absolute. We are all on a journey to somewhere. Like any good Mormon I have faith that we are in the process becoming something greater. Some principles, though formative and helpful initially in the journey, we may outgrow as our understanding increases. Shedding them can be very frightening or painful. I cannot believe that this makes such principles untrue. They are a necessary step to greater understanding.
Among Christian religions, Mormonism is unique, in that, while affirming that Christ is the way, the Truth, and the life, and that no one can return to the Father but by him, we also believe in a mechanism for all mankind to receive that gift eventually if they desire it, even if they do not reach that point in this life. Joseph Smith taught that we embrace all truth, wherever it may be found. There is a wonderful universalist, humanist streak in Mormonism that rings very true to me. As I study truth, I find it everywhere and yet I know I have much yet to learn. For the few who are still reading this lengthy, wordy beast of a post, best wishes to you in your own spiritual journey.
The blogosphere is one place where you will never find any shortage of opinions and punditry. The recent election has been rife with partisan bickering and and all or nothing thinking. The healthcare debate online suffers from much of the same problem. It is fascinating to me how perceptions can vary from one person to another regarding the same reality.
Through it all, I cling to the idea that the vast majority of people are basically good. At the same time, a look at history or the news makes quite clear that even good people are capable of doing some pretty horrible things. Jonah Lehrer at Frontal Cortex recently shared a personal experience with one way that people with good intentions can make the world worse, the Just World Phenomenon. Read the rest of this entry »
Whether its Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus rising from the dead, Mohammed riding a winged horse of fire up into heaven, or the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith to lead him to an ancient record written by his own hand on gold plates, all the World’s great religions are founded upon miracles. They are fantastic and dramatic, and awe inspiring. They are also generally ridiculed and looked down upon in today’s “evidence based” world. To believe in miracles is to be gullible. In today’s world there must always be an explanation.