August 29, 2009

Choosing Our Truths

Many years ago, my church was involved in a pissing match with its own academics who were examining church history from a dispassionate scholarly perspective. Before taking drastic action (eventually several professors were excommunicated) one of the church's Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, gave an address that was meant to rein in activities that had been deemed overly critical. His remarks have haunted me ever since. Among them Packer made several statements that have since been repeated at various times when the church experienced one embarrassing episode or another. The central theme of his address can be summarized by the following excerpt.

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.
This begs a question: Useful for what purpose? Packard goes on to describe the effort to explain church history as a kind of war--a war in which members should take strong positions.
In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel...In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be given equal time to the adversary.
(The entire discourse can be found at:

There is so much in his comments that sadden me, as it's a perfect example of the problem of apologetic thinking. Packer profers the Mormon view that the church is "true" (i.e. perfect and correct in all its particulars) as an undisputed fact and condemns any action that would question it. By getting members to agree to this thinking, the only option they have is to build upon the premise without ever considering its value. He essentially says, "Don't worry about the truthfulness of the church. That has been established. Your duty is to do everything in your power to depict the church as true--even by ignoring evidence that contradicts the premise."

This idea reminds me of what happened during China's cultural revolution (not to mention other horrific episodes in our earth's history). Ying Chang Compestine, who was a child living in China during the 60s, summarizes the advent of the cultural revolution by saying: One day children were encouraged to ask questions--the next day, they were told they didn't need to know. In this way, to tell members that there are things they don't need to know about their church--things that are perhaps true, but not useful--is little more than an attempt at mind control.

There are all kinds of ways to effect mind control. All it takes is to prevent otherwise curious people from asking questions. Today's debate on healthcare, which appears more focused on ideology than fact, is a case in point. Recent coverage of town hall meetings record a public discourse that has become a shouting match full of unproven and hollow assertions, where people seem more concerned with scoring points--even to the extent of distorting the truth--than in ascertaining what is best for the public good. Arguments are couched in terms of their consistency with the ideals of our nation's founders, when those who make such claims are clearly no more familiar with the Constitution as they are with Shinto scripture. Shouting down people's questions and misquoting Jefferson are two ways to prevent an "un-useful" truth from getting heard.


Anonymous said...


At root, every church group that privileges dogma (including the bible) over the evidence of all the rest of creation is profoundly, intellectually dishonest, and I would say immoral. "Faith" becomes an instrument of deception.

In contrast, the scientific process embodies wonderful self-correcting mechanisms. A short-coming of the scientific community from my perspective, however, is that they're not so good as many church groups are at supporting day-to-day-type activities that build relationships and community (among insiders).


Alan Bahr said...

Nicely said. I wonder what it would take for the scientific community to build a support organizations?

Matt's brain said...

I think the scientific community already has support organizations. They are called "universities".

Unfortunately, one of the problems with universities today is that they generally don't try to include the general public. There are some efforts to accomplish this through outreach and PBS specials, but in general, the public has no idea what's going on in modern scientific research.

I think it would be nice if the public could really see how much work and cross-checking goes on in scientific research. I definitely think it would be a step up if people in other areas adopted the same standards. Imagine, if you will, if our politicians backed up their claims with results from scholarly papers rather than epithets and sound-bytes.

Sherry said...

My husband and I were just talking about this. I find your opinions courageous. And, I applaud you.

Anonymous said...

John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" provides the quintessential set of arguments on behalf of freedom of thought and discussion. He points out that once a person decides that he will not entertain evidence that his beliefs are false (or harmful), he loses any grounds for believing that they are true (or useful).

Mill further argues that beliefs remain alive and vital only when they are challenged - beliefs protected from criticism (like most Christian dogma) quickly lose their potency to affect human conduct.

Its a very persuasive set of essays. Highly recommended.

Joe H.