Advice for a Mormon Intellectual, Part 2

Note: This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

The third point of part 1 was a recommendation to understand what your belief in the gospel is based on.

4) In the same vein, be sure you understand what it means to say that Mormonism is true. We don't talk enough about what it means to use that word when we talk about the Church or our beliefs. A proposition is true if what it expresses reflects the way things really are in the world. But a church isn't a proposition, nor is God, so we aren't using the word in the usual way.

When we say, for example, that we worship the true God, we are making a claim that we believe accurately reflects reality; we are, at the least, saying that he is the right one to worship. Perhaps more important, though, are other uses of the word "true," such as when we speak of a line being true, or a person being true; in such uses, the word "true" has meanings such as "undeviating" and "faithful." I am a true spouse by being faithful. A line is true if it doesn't bend.

I believe in the truth of Mormonism in the straightforward, propositional sense: Joseph Smith was called by God to be a prophet. He did have plates of gold, and he translated a portion of those plates by the power of God, resulting in the Book of Mormon. And so on.

But I am much more interested in, and even more firmly committed to belief in, the truth of the LDS Church in the second sense: through membership and life in Mormonism, a way of living is opened that gives me genuine relation to God and other people; the good news of Christ shows itself in and through the LDS Church. I am so much interested in this sense of truth that it shapes how I understand the first sense.

If you are asking about the truth of this or that in your thinking about Mormonism, which truth are you asking about? Whichever one it is, how is it related to the other way of understanding truth?

5) As Latter-day Saints, we believe in continuing revelation. Some LDS intellectuals hope for continuing revelation to resolve issues with which we have intellectual difficulty: same-sex marriage, women and the priesthood, the place of those who are substantially mentally or physically different from the norm, and so on. But do we understand what revelation is? We have had or could have revelation for ourselves that would help us answer that question.

We make three mistakes when we use the word "revelation" without reflecting on what it means. One is to forget that with some notable and very important exceptions, prophetic revelation is similar to the kind of revelation a stake president receives for the stake, that a bishop receives for the ward, that the Relief Society president receives for her stewardship, that a parent receives for their family. Rarely is revelation a visit from a heavenly being, a voice from the heavens, or a vision. Sometimes it comes as a strong impression or even a knowledge of what needs to be done or said. Perhaps most often it comes as an insight or impression.

A second mistake is to forget that though most revelation comes in answer to a question, it's rarely as an answer to a question about historical or intellectual issues; it's much more likely to come in answer to our need to help other people. If I ask "What does Brother L need me to do for him today?" I am much more likely to receive an answer than if I ask whether there were people before Adam. Perhaps my experience is idiosyncratic, but God seems immensely uninterested in answering the second kind of question and intimately interested in the first.

Finally, we make a mistake if we forget that revelation will often give us answers we would never have expected and things we cannot explain. If we have had the experience of praying for help with a church calling and receiving revelation—not just wish-fulfillment or the coincidence of good feeling with our intentions, but genuine revelation—then we are more likely to listen when a prophet speaks, even if what he says doesn't concur with what I and my intellectual friends have been thinking, even if he doesn't or can't explain what he says.

As Elder Dieter Uchtdorf reminded us, since the leaders of the Church are human it is surely true that "members or leaders of the Church have simply made mistakes." That part of his talk made headlines internationally, in spite of the fact that he didn't say anything that should have been surprising.

But we ought not to let that snippet from his talk overshadow what he said only a few sentences later: "no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made [by church leaders] without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father." "Mistake" ought not to be our first response to what we are told by the leadership of the Church.

12/2/2022 9:09:19 PM
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  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.