Ambiguity comes with the territory

In a discussion with a BYU religion professor yesterday, he mentioned that he had been told by people at the Marriott School of Business that graduates from that institution are universally praised in all areas except one (I may be slightly exaggerating here). The one area in which the BYU grad is behind his fellow MBA’s? Handling Ambiguity.

I wasn’t terribly surprised by the revelation. I don’t want to blame the “the brethren have spoken” mindset here, because I don’t believe that provides sufficient explanation for this trend. The truth is that, in the church, we are conditioned to reject ambiguity. If there are no answers to our questions, we pray/study harder. If that doesn’t work, we do it some more anyway. Problems are not problems, they’re “tests” that we need to pass in order to resolve. Things do not just happen in the Mormon worldview. In spite of our insistance on free will, it turns out that God has carefully controlled everything in our lives so that we can learn the appropriate lessons from our challenges (if we choose to, of course).

Why do we fear the inexplicable, the contradictory, and the unmotivated? Perhaps a certain believe in a divine overseer removes fear when life becomes unpredictable and confusing. It seems hard for us to accept that some things are beyond our comprehension (perhaps because of our beliefs about intelligence and intelligences).

Perhaps I am only speaking for myself here.

In any case, it seems that we have lost our taste for mystery (in the Christian sense) in the church. We do not like to dwell on paradoxes in doctrine and faith, telling ourselves that there are no paradoxes and creating elaborate schemes to make our contradictions no longer contradict.

But the mind of God is not the mind of man and the ways of God differ from ours.

Joseph Smith once said:
“By proving contraries, the truth is made manifest”

To be honest, I have no idea what this means. It could mean that by showing that contradictions exist and that it is necessary to accept them, we approach God. Or it could mean that by examining apparent contradictions, God can help us unravel them and find the rational truth therein. I am not convinced that we have an either-or situation here. In any case, it seems that we need to pay close attention to the paradoxes in our belief. Contemplation thereof seems to be a manner of approaching God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5220066 Rob

    i’m very uncomfortable with ambiguity. Except when i’m not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5220066 Rob

    Seriously though, that is one of the major differences that we have with other Christian religions, that we believe He (and his plan) can be approached on a rational rather than a mystical basis. I dont’ think it is a bad thing to say that the universe must make sense, that God is not a god of contradictions, chaos or disorder. Now obviously we do not have the same powers of judgment and understanding that God does. But i dont’ think there are questions without answers, just questions we don’t know the answers to YET.Now the proposition that “God has carefully controlled everything in our lives so that we can learn the appropriate lessons from our challenges”… that is an interesting one. It is certainly something i have heard preached from the pulpit and in numerous classes. I’m not sure I agree with it though. Is there a certain degree of randomness in the universe, inherent with our free agency? Or is every detail chosen in advance? I think I tend towards the former.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree! LDS tend to have a mindset that doesn’t handle ambiguity well. I’m not sure it’s attributable to Church leaders. In fact, Elder Hafen has an excellent article on living with ambiguity and uncertainty. http://home.uchicago.edu/~spackman/hafen“Dealing with Uncertainty,” in The Believing Heart.Originally a BYU Devotional address, delivered 9 January 1979Also published as “On Dealing with Uncertainty,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 63ff  Posted by Ben S.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post, John C.I think that Joseph Smith was comfortable with both the rational and the mystical. He used logic in his discourses of God and believed in a material diety, yet he spoke in tongs and used a seer stones.We however do not like the mystical so much…In fact, it seems that we have done everything we can to divorce ourselves from it. I think that it is likely a function of modernity more than doctrine. Posted by J. Stapley

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comments, guys.I think that the mystical is very important to the church. The activities that we engage in the temple operate (I think) on almost a purely mystical plane. They are not designed to make rational sense.Also, Rob, I am not sure that we can have a universe with integrated randomness without getting into issues of paradox and mysticism. Randomness itself is by definition irrational. Posted by John C.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t pity the Marriot grads. Often in business *ambiguity* is a code word for being able to justifying lying to the customer. I refused a VP’s request to alter a formula for a safety critical chemical. He told me told that I let my honesty get in the way of business. I replied that it was a clear violation of the customer contract. Another employee was brought in to take my position. The chemical was manufactured according to the VP’s demand. The material failed in the customer’s use and we ended up being charged for their down time, scrap, etc. I contacted the ethics officer and filed a complaint. My boss and the VP were conspiring to fabricate data to make it look as though I was not performing up to par. They are no longer with us. My current VP decided to change our process in violation of a customer contract, but decided not to tell me. The customer found out about the change and is mad. The prior VP was a sociopath, but this one claims to be a religious fellow. I don’t appreciate the way he is making people of faith look. Give me a BYU grad who has problems with ambiguity any time.  Posted by Floyd the Wonderdog

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5220066 Rob

    This post has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/5220066 Rob

    Mysticism and symbolism are not the same thing. I don’t think the temple rituals are mystical at all, unlike the rituals you find in other religions. They are a symbolic way of passing information in multiple layers that requires spiritual insight to unlock these layers of meaning. Is that mysticism? perhaps we are having a semantic difficulty here. To me, the temple demands rational thought and deep contemplation. Mysticism is the antithesis of rationality. The temple invites intellectual exploration. Mystical rituals shun it.As for the seer stones and speaking in tongues, I see those as evidence of advanced technology and forms of communication, not “magic”. Heck, a Palm computer in the 1800s would have qualified as a “seer stone” probably. Randomness in the universe may raise problems of paradox, but so does the idea that everything is planned. This is a whole ‘nother topic.


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