The Overlooked Bondage of Our Common Sense
In October of last year Elder Quentin L. Cook, one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' highest authorities, gave an address in which he quoted from Jeremiah:
My people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit [i.e., for something useless]. . . . For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters [meaning: "the continuous spring of running water"], and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water (Jer. 2:11, 13).
Jeremiah accuses Israel of having exchanged the glory that God intended for them for something of no value. He says they have done that in two ways, ways that turn out to be faces of the same coin: they have abandoned God, who has been a constant source of fresh spiritual water for them, and in place of that spiritual stream they have dug cisterns to hold water that they collect. But the cisterns they have dug have cracks in them and can hold no water, neither God's nor their own.
As Elder Cook understood that passage, the Lord was pointing out that Israel had brought itself into bondage, and his address dealt with four ways in which people are brought into bondage: through addiction, by excessive attention to things that are otherwise harmless or even good (such as eating or video games), by forcing people to violate their conscience, and through "the philosophies of men."
Think briefly about the last of these four, the philosophies of men. Latter-day Saints often invoke that phrase. Though it doesn't occur in scripture, the phrase probably has its origin in Colossians 2:8: "Beware lest anyone take you captive you through philosophy, by empty deception, according to the tradition of men and the foundations of the world, rather than according to Christ" (my translation).
Did Paul mean by philosophy what we mean when we use the word? Probably not. This is the only place in which Paul speaks of philosophy as he does here, but given his comparison of philosophy to human traditions and their worldly foundations, it seems more likely that Paul is referring to what we might think of as culture or even common sense if we think of that term literally, "the understanding that we have in common, that we share."
The tightest cords of bondage are those we are unaware of. The most willing slave does not recognize that she is a slave, thinking that what she does is what she has chosen to do though she has been manipulated into doing it. We are most in danger of this particular bondage when what we think or do seems "perfectly natural" or "perfectly reasonable." The things that we think beyond question are the very things that can most easily deceive us to the point of bondage.
We all dig cisterns for the water we prefer. Every group has its common sense, and we run the danger of being in bondage to a group and its definition of common sense whenever our lives are dictated by common sense, whether liberal or conservative, whether majority or minority, whether believing or unbelieving.
Jesus has announced that the Kingdom of God is near (e.g., Mt. 4:17). He invites us to join that nearby Kingdom rather than the kingdom of human expectation. The nearness of his Kingdom, the preaching of the gospel, questions our cultures and habits and common senses from outside. It questions from God's perspective rather than a merely human perspective. Jesus invites us to drink from his well rather than ours (Jn. 4:9-14).
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.