Friday, June 10, 2011

truth doesn't mean absolutes

I've been reading "Reflections of a Scientist" by Henry Eyring (he is known for his discovery of the universally accepted absolute reaction rate formula). A lot of what he said resonated with me because I've been thinking about faith and doubt a lot lately. I've thought about why people can't seem to accept the Church and why so may drift away from it. Eyring wrote that "I'm sure the reasons are different and varied. I can understand if a person wants to misbehave and has to rationalize to himself. He has to think he's all right. But I also understand that people who think they have to be as smart as the Lord, understand everything, and have no contradictions in their minds may have trouble. There are all kinds of contradictions that I don't understand, but I find the same kinds of contradictions in science, and I haven't decided to apostatize from science."

This idea of wanting to "be as smart as the Lord, understand everything, and have no contradictions" caught my attention. While we are encouraged to seek out understanding and knowledge, doing so in absolutes is negative. This seems like an important concept to me, and I like it because it tends towards an understanding of the Church - and the gospel as we comprehend it - as a human institution and not one which contains perfect answers. 

While God Himself (and His love, justice, plan, etc.) is perfect, nothing about our world, our understanding, even our existence is free of frailties and incongruities. This is, of course, purposeful because "In the long run, the truth is its own most powerful advocate. The Lord uses imperfect people. He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth "line upon line, precept upon precept" in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science." 

It's the very process Alma outlines in explaining how the word is like a seed that will grow if it is a good seed and bring forth fruit. Bit by bit it expands and year by year it brings forth more fruit (Alma 32).

It requires faith and trust to come upon truth but not necessarily absolute answers. Remember my post about how God Himself places us in positions where we have to have faith in the midst of a paradox? Choosing to believe isn't a matter of having a good answer for every question. "You can't intellectualize your way to a testimony. There will always be another questions beyond the one you have just answered. Incidentally, the same is true of science. None of its findings are final. Still, some people seem to stumble when they run into a contradiction." That's a hard thing for a lot of people to stomach. We want absolutes. We want absolute statements of truth in religious principles. We want church leaders to stand as absolute pillars of morality. But that isn't the world we live in... and in all reality, it's better this way.

There is a give and take, in science and religious, and it's less a matter of discovering absolute truth (reaching some end point - having "enough") as it is gaining a little clearer understanding "precept upon precept" growing in light and truth. 
2 Nephi 28
29 Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!
30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.
Says Eyring: "There was a time when may people thought that the pure understand of the scriptures required the acceptance of a flat earth. The Bible speaks of the four corners of the earth and of all the stars in the firmament, conjuring up the image of lights on the inside of a giant dome covering the earth. In the time of Columbus, many people thought a flat earth was a religious necessity. When it turned out to be round, Christ's teachings were found to be just as consistent with the new view as with the old. In fact, the great underlying principles of faith were brought into bolder relief when the clutter of false notions were removed from around them." 

New scientific theories are always disproving old ones. Henry Eyring used as an example the concept of mechanical determinism, "that if a sufficiently expert mathematician were given the state of the universe at any instant of time, he could calculate the state of things at all times to come. This left no place for the great religious principle of free will. Then quantum mechanics brought with it the uncertainty principle. This principles eliminates the possibility of predicting the future exactly, and tends to confirm the fundamental Christian tenet that man enjoys agency as a divine gift."

There are many places within my religious understanding that are dark and murky, full of contradictions, and/or don't quite make sense. I really do believe that God allows this, that it is a fundamental part of His plan for us, because we need to learn to have faith. To move forward with partial understanding. To trust spiritual impressions in the face of doubt and unanswered questions. 

Of course I don't mean blind obedience. True faith is based upon the same method science uses -- believe something could be true, test it, measure the results, move forward with your conclusion and expand upon it.

I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is where a fullness of understanding is available to those who are willing to seek it out. It may have it's faults and discrepancies, which those who are against the church are all to happy to point out. But I agree with Henry Eyring that while Joseph may have made errors in translating this "would merely prove that he was human, a fact about which I was already quite sure. It would also show that the Creator is tolerant of a mistake now and then. These seem quite hopeful ideas to me, since I am clearly human and have made at least my full share of mistakes."

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