Of “Facts” and Faith: Do “Facts” Compel a Certain Conclusion When Weighing Matters of Faith? For Some, They Might; For Others, They Don’t. Why The Difference?
By Ken K. Gourdin
A poster on Mormon Dialogue and Discussion [sic] wrote, “I do not think it is good to hold onto beliefs.” I’m not exactly sure what she means by that. Alma, in his seminal sermon on faith, talks about testing seeds (pardon the pun: seminal, seeds . . . Ha-ha! OK, never mind). In Alma 32:28, he says:
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
So I suppose it depends on what kind of fruit one gets from his faith or his belief. If it passes the test outlined in the foregoing verse, one should hold onto it, and it seems to me that one would want to hold onto it. The thread’s originator continued, “We are all misinformed.” In light of the foregoing verse, I might have responded, “If one tests the seed and it bears good fruit, one continues to nourish it and enjoys a plentiful harvest of such good fruit. If one tests the seed and it does not, he discards the seed for another.”
I responded, “If I gave up all of the beliefs I have questions about, I wouldn’t believe anything. If that’s the alternative, I would rather believe something and be wrong.” I didn’t mention these blog posts on the thread, but see the following:
Later, I added, “Which is not to say that I don’t have an open mind, but I do try to avoid having a mind that’s so open, my brain falls out. ”
The thread’s originator, attempting to draw a distinction I don’t understand, responded, “Not ‘give up,’ change.” I responded, “If I change my beliefs, then I give up the belief I have changed, don’t I? With due respect, it seems that this is nothing more than a semantic game: ‘Giving up beliefs’ is bad, but ‘changing beliefs’ is good.
Another interlocutor wrote:
I believed the Dodgers were going to win the World Series that last two years, but I was wrong. Still, I wouldn’t want to believe anything else because I am a fan of the Dodgers.
Matters of salvation, however, rise to a higher level than rooting for a sports team (though some might disagree). What if your erroneous belief puts you on a path that takes you away from God? What then? Would you still rather believe in something and be wrong?
My standing before God is a matter between God and me, your standing before God is a matter between God and you, and someone else’s standing before God is a matter between God and him. If he finds a path which bears good fruit in his life, which fills his soul and makes him happy, who am I to argue? More power to him.
I have a hard time picturing, e.g., The Princess Bride’s Vizzini as played by Wallace Shawn as God, who, when I meet him, will begin laughing uproariously, telling me, “You fool! It was the Catholics! The Catholics had it right!” Or, for that matter, I have a hard time picturing any Catholics meeting him, whereupon he begins laughing uproariously and saying, “You fool! It was the Latter-day Saints! The Latter-day Saints had it right!”
If that happens, I’ll simply say, “Well, I did the best I could to discern and to follow God’s will, to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, to love my neighbor as myself, to serve others, to make life as good as I could make it for myself, for those I love, and for those around me for as long as my mortal life endured. If that makes me a fool or if someone thinks I was wrong for doing so, so be it.”
In order to be deemed spiritually fit to enter Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—which we believe are houses of the Lord, so entrance is a privilege we do not take lightly: see, e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 110:6-8, available here: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/110.6-8—members must keep certain commandments and covenants, and they meet biennially with the bishop (pastor) of their local ward (congregation) and with the stake president (a stake is a group of wards similar to a diocese) to certify their spiritual fitness by answering certain questions. The thread’s originator posted two of the questions that are asked in those interviews, asking me how I would answer them. She wrote:
Haha Kenngo, love the description [of Wallace Shawn as The Princess Bride’s Vizzini as God] So how do you answer these ones?
3 Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?
4 Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?
Why are you talking about my standing before God, when, as I have already said, my standing before God is a matter between God and me and no one else? We differ on certain fundamental things, but that doesn’t make it my place to ask you to justify your standing before God on a public message board, so why do you think it’s your place to ask me to justify my standing before God on a public message board?
Apparently, she felt that my question was excessively pointed or that I was offended in some way. I have no way of knowing, especially since, often, tone is almost impossible to detect in on line interactions, but I wonder if her focus on my alleged tone (that, allegedly, I was offended or angered in some way) was, wittingly or not, a deflection technique employed so that she could avoid answering my questions. She replied:
I think my tone of voice is not quite coming through—please do not picture in your mind a sarcastic eye-rolling skeptic. … [ellipses sic] picture a broken-heart, someone with the foundation ripped from under them, without support, without faith in anything or anyone – looking for answers, trying to figure things out.
Like an abused animal that bites and growls – it is a test. Those not loving or secure enough to get past the teeth will not be strong enough to help.
I haven’t pictured you as a “sarcastic, eye-rolling skeptic.” Absent any compelling indication I should do otherwise, I don’t have any reason to not take your self-description as accurate. I haven’t pictured you as anything, really: I’m not responding to any image I might have of you (or not) in my mind’s eye. I’m simply responding to what you have written. I’m sorry for the difficulties you are experiencing, I bear you no ill will, and I wish you well. I’m not trying to compare our respective difficulties (playing “tribulation poker” is useless, anyway: “My straight flush beats your full house!” :rolleyes:) but I have my own difficulties; they are different, both in nature and in degree, from yours, but I have my own difficulties. I simply choose, difficulties notwithstanding, to believe.
All of that having been said, my questions still stand:
1. I would never dream of asking you to justify your standing before God on a public message board. I don’t think it is my place, so why, in contrast, do you think it is your place to ask me to justify my standing before God on a public message board? (For the record, I am a faithful, [or at least a striving], Latter-day Saint. As I said, I don’t think it’s any of your business, but you can deduce my answers from that.)
2. Other than semantics (to-may-to, to-mah-to, po-tay-to, po-tah-to) what’s the difference between “giving up” beliefs and “changing” them? If I change my beliefs on a given subject, I have simply “given up” an old belief for a new one, haven’t I?
Alas, while I thought they were good questions, apparently, the thread’s originator disagreed: she did not respond to them, and did not respond to me further at all. While she was not addressing me, she wrote, “Getting too attached to any particular beliefs leads to cognitive dissonance [also known, colloquially, as “cog-dis”]—hold onto anything too tightly and vision becomes clouded.”
Despite her apparent refusal to continue corresponding with me, I wrote (ellipses mine, in original):
Well, let’s see about a few beliefs to which (Gasp!) I’m firmly attached, and to which I hold tightly.
“God loves me”: Nope, no clouded vision or cog-dis there!
“Jesus sacrificed Himself for me”: Nope, no clouded vision or cog-dis there!
“The Holy Spirit has borne witness to me that God is aware of me and that He loves me”: Nope, no clouded vision or cog-dis there! …
Well, I guess I’m simply not very good at this “cog-dis-and-clouded-vision” thing that, apparently, is supposed to open up new vistas of understanding for me!
Ah, well! I guess I’ll just have to keep working on it!
The thread’s originator posted a link to Wikipedia, s.v. “cognitive dissonance.” Another poster made an excellent point when she responded, “I’m confused. I looked at the link and it said that the definition of cognitive dissonance is when a person “holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.” This is not what you said though. You said that getting attached to any particular belief leads to cognitive dissonance.” Later, referring back to the Wikipedia entry on cognitive dissnonance, this poster wrote, “The article seems to saying that being too attached to a belief only causes a problem when contradictory facts are presented. What if there are no contradictory facts? What if the beliefs are actually based on truth?”
Continuing to refuse to accept the fact that discarding a current belief when presented with new information is not the only alternative, the thread’s originator wrote (but not to me, of course), “Haha, yes, that is the solution . . . Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs … pretend there are no contradictory facts.”
Though, apparently, the thread’s originator deemed my contributions unworthy of further acknowledgment by her, in response to her assertion above, I wrote:
You may live in a world in which “contradictory facts” are so compelling that, e.g., when confronted with them, an erstwhile faithful, devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no choice but to cease his participation. I’m sure you disagree, and I believe I understand why, but I don’t think God works that way, any more than He presents a case to someone that is so compelling for remaining faithful and devoted that the member has no choice but to continue his participation.
We’re all our own triers of fact with respect to matters of faith. When it comes to decisions whether to cease or to continue our participation in a certain faith community, each of us decides what evidence we will admit, what evidence we will exclude, how much weight we will give to any particular piece of evidence we do decide to admit, and so on. That’s why, even when presented with the same evidence (a “case” which one person believes is so compelling for ceasing [or for continuing] participation), another person may reach a contrary conclusion.
I don’t see the world as it is; I see it as I am. The same is true of you: you don’t see the world as it is; you see it as you are. That’s why you may have massive levels of cognitive dissonance over something which barely troubles another person (or which doesn’t trouble him at all), or vice-versa. I can shake my fists and stomp my feet and say, “But my case is so compelling!” But I can’t force you to see the matter or the subject under consideration the same way I do (or vice-versa). Because each of us is his own trier of fact regarding matters of faith and because each of us sees matters of faith not as they are, but, rather, as each of us is, we may reach differing conclusions even when presented with identical evidence.
It’s not so much about pretending there are no contradictory facts as it is about simply seeing and/or weighing those facts differently. You may have what you believe to be a perfectly valid, perfectly reasonable frame of reference with respect to those facts (and it may even be a perfectly valid, perfectly reasonable frame of reference with respect to those facts) but that doesn’t mean it’s the only such frame of reference. That’s why someone could consider the same evidence you have, yet could reach a different conclusion.
Say, for example, I kill someone. All of my victim’s friends, family, and acquaintances universally hail him as a kind, gentle, and caring person who wouldn’t hurt a soul. Based on those “facts” (though, really, they’re opinions), his death seems senseless and unnecessary. But is that the only possible conclusion? What if, for whatever reason, he instigated the confrontation between us (however out-of-character that might be for him)? What if I were defending myself? What if I were actually trying to defend both of us against a third party, but my efforts went horribly awry?
Am I “ignoring” what his friends, family and acquaintances say about him? No, but I am suggesting that that evidence be weighed differently in light of other facts. They’re welcome to eulogize him however they wish at his funeral: I’m not going to crash the funeral insisting that people hear the “real” story. And while they’re welcome to give victim impact testimony at any proceeding against me, still, I can, in good conscience and good faith, argue that as compelling as those victim impact statements might be, they don’t tell the whole story.