I spent the vast majority of Friday and Saturday at the Richard L. Bushman Colloquium at BYU, sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. The theme was Mormonism in the Academy and many of the presentations dealt with the role of Mormon historians to some extent or another. My thoughts are somewhat inspired by some of the presentations, or probably more accurately, have their roots in things that were said and then spun tangentially out of control to where they are.
I am going to work with questions of faith, truth, and usefulness. I’m not really going to delve into the relationship between faith and doubt, which is a valuable conversation, but one I’ve explored elsewhere recently. I’ll start with some (in)famous quotes from Elder Boyd K. Packer (in “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” which is worth reading for full context, since I think the contextual work helps alleviate some of what I find troubling here) that were alluded to at a couple points during the conference:
“Some things that are true are not very useful.”
And, perhaps more troubling:
“Unfortunately, many of the things they tell one another are not uplifting, go far beyond the audience they may have intended, and destroy faith.”
With those in mind, I’d like to turn to the Book of Mormon, for one of Latter-day Saint scripture’s most famed (and oft-quoted) verses on faith:
“And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” Alma 32:21
So, let’s spin a scenario: Hyrum hears about Joseph Smith looking into a hat and using a stone to translate the plates, rather than setting them on a table and reading along with some sort of partition between him and Oliver. Hyrum’s never heard this before and it causes him to question his belief in Joseph Smith as a prophet, ultimately deciding he doesn’t believe that Joseph was called of God.
Using Elder Packer’s paradigm, this would be a case of something being true, but not useful and not being uplifting, but actually destroying faith. Yet, I don’t think that can necessarily be the case. If Hyrum’s belief was dependent on the incorrect image of Joseph Smith translating the plates, he cannot have had faith, for faith is “hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” If it wasn’t true, you can’t have faith in it, definitionally that’s impossible. Therefore, it seems to me that the truth cannot destroy faith, if that truth is presented responsibly. Faith depends on truth. You cannot have faith in the absence of truth, so why would truth be a harm to it?
I’m totally on board with the belief that not all things that are true are inherently useful (there are 118 ridges on the edge of a dime and 32 muscles in a cat’s ear, would be two examples of things that are true, but probably not very useful). I also believe that some things that are true need to be presented in certain contexts for them to really be valuable and helpful. But I struggle with the idea that something true can destroy faith.
Things get messy though (unsurprisingly) with these ideas of faith and truth. What if your faith is in something true, but to get to that point of true faith, you believe something demonstrably false? For Hyrum, believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet is a true thing. He can have faith in Joseph Smith. But Hyrum depends on a sub-belief that Joseph Smith translated the plates a certain way that seems to be demonstrably false according to any and all records available. Hyrum’s faith, in something true, is then destroyed by learning actual truth that conflicts with his believed truth.
What is it that Hyrum had? Is it faith? Or does faith require truth all the way down? Can you have faith that involves hope for something that is *not* true?
To further complicate matters, what does the use of “True” in Alma mean? Does it refer to empirical truths that can be proven with observations or other factual sorts of methods? Does it mean “true” as in motivates you to become more like God? Both? Something else? When I say I believe the Book of Mormon to be true, what does that mean? How is the Church true?
I don’t have solid answers. I think that truth is difficult to grasp, but that there is such a thing. I think in most matters when I bear witness of something’s truthfulness, I am less concerned with historical accuracy, or empirical proof and far more concerned with what has been enlightening for me. With what gives me hope. With what has drawn me closer to God. With what imbues me with the enabling power of grace to change and progress.
Yet, I believe that pure faith is not based in fantasy or make-believe, but works with factual truth. Understanding history and science helps refine my faith and insure that I am built on a solid foundation. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive and that while many religious claims are likely impossible to empirically prove, those that are should be coupled with those empirical findings. I do not believe that truth of any sort can destroy faith (unless that truth is manipulated and wielded somewhat dishonestly). I think truth should be sought after and enjoyed.
Indeed, as John Taylor said:
“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.”
I want to find all eternal truth and float away, joyfully. What’s more faithful than that?