“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” – John 8:32
Truth is fascinating. It seems to be an abstract idea that we attempt to give an incredibly concrete definition. The idea of truth also seems to vary from person to person, sometimes significantly. I recently re-read “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect” by then Elder Boyd K. Packer and this is partially a response to that. I think of Truth as having two main sub-categories: Factual or Historical Truth and Transcendent Truth, relating to right and wrong, doctrine, unchanging principles to live by, etc. That distinction helps explain some of the divergence in opinions about what Truth is.
The two categories are more fluid than rigid and I think that they can support each other, but problems can be encountered when someone holds that what they perceive as Factual Truth to be Transcendent Truth and then they stumble upon Facts that destroy their image of the ‘Truth’.
One of my favorite things about Mormonism is the eternal thirsting for truth that is evident and encouraged by almost all of the early leaders of the Church. The encouragement supports seeking after both categories of truth. John Taylor, third President of the Church, said it beautifully:
“We are open for the reception of all truth, of whatever nature it may be, and are desirous to obtain and possess it, to search after it as we would for hidden treasures; and to use all the knowledge God gives to us to possess ourselves of all the intelligence that he has given to others; and to ask at his hands to reveal unto us his will, in regard to things that are the best calculated to promote the happiness and well-being of human society.
If there are any good principles, any moral philosophy that we have not yet attained to, we are desirous to learn them. If there is anything in the scientific world that we do not yet comprehend, we desire to become acquainted with it. If there is any branch of philosophy calculated to promote the well-being of humanity, that we have not yet grasped, we wish to possess ourselves of it. If there is anything pertaining to the rule and government of nations, or politics, if you please, that we are not acquainted with, we desire to possess it. If there are any religious ideas, any theological truths, any principles pertaining to God, that we have not learned, we ask mankind, and we pray God, our Heavenly Father, to enlighten our minds that we may comprehend, realize, embrace, and live up to them as part of our religious faith. Thus our ideas and thoughts would extend as far as the wide world spreads, embracing everything pertaining to light, life, or existence pertaining to this world or the world that is to come. … They would soar after the intelligence of the Gods that dwell in the eternal worlds. They would grasp everything that is good and noble and excellent and happifying and calculated to promote the well-being of the human family.
There is no man nor set of men who have pointed out the pathway for our feet to travel in, in relation to these matters. There are no dogmas nor theories extant in the world that we profess to listen to, unless they can be verified by the principles of eternal truth. We carefully scan, investigate, criticize, and examine everything that presents itself to our view, and so far as we are enabled to comprehend any truths in existence, we gladly hail them as part and portion of the system with which we are associated. If there is any truth in heaven, earth, or hell, I want to embrace it; I care not what shape it comes in to me, who brings it, or who believes in it; whether it is popular or unpopular, truth, eternal truth, I wish to float in and enjoy.”
Taylor’s quote stands in stark contrast to the ideas put forth by Packer. He pushes for accepting truth wherever it is found, while Packer cautions about avoiding some facts and truths because they can damage faith. While the cautions from Elder Packer are well intentioned, I don’t think that hiding Truth is the answer. Particularly given the consequences for faith if we hide the truth. . Given that faith by necessity requires a foundation in “things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21), can we really have true faith if it’s based in something that is not True?
An integral piece of my understanding of God is that he knows all Truth, so the instruction to avoid and deliberately hide or cover up some parts of known truth, troubles me. Doing so would in effect cripple our ability to progress and become like God. A natural extension of limiting faith.
Perhaps there is a Truth that transcends Fact, an idea explored by a friend and relevant here as well as to the ideas of Paul H Dunn, the (in)famous general authority who told ‘true’ stories to illustrate principles that ended up being less than factual. Transcendent Truth enables an account or story to be true, yet utterly fictional. I find powerful truths in Harry Potter, Star Wars, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, The Lion King, and even The Dark Knight. The truth of these works of fiction is powerful, regardless of being devoid of fact.
I don’t know whether faith must be based in Factual or Transcendent Truth. Perhaps it can be in both. I lean towards faith being tied to the Transcendent. This allows members to gain faith in Joseph Smith with the mythologized version of history, as the focus is to teach Transcendent and not Historical Truth. The myth is not inherently fictional, myths often have Historical Truth as well. The trouble lies in Transcendent Truths also being labeled Historical Truths. Yet, I believe and have experienced, the strengthening of faith that comes from embracing truth. My faith needed (likely still needs) to be examined and even purified a bit, but I continue to adapt and find the freedom that comes with embracing and floating in eternal truth.