Monday, April 28, 2014

The Truth of All Things

In the final pages of the Book of Mormon, Moroni imparts a well-known challenge upon the reader:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
That famous scripture (Moroni 10:4) is supported by God's words to Oliver Cowdery (D&C 9:8):
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
These verses (among others) form the basis of the Mormon emotion-based methods for determining truth and making decisions.  God expects us to come to a tentative conclusion and then consult him in prayer and wait for the warm fuzzy feeling if we have the right answer.

I've heard many arguments against this.  I've made many arguments against this.  Popular points include:

  • Other religions get the same emotional response in prayer to their own religious texts.  How can we be sure our response is an accurate confirmation of truth?
  • People can "feel the Spirit" while watching emotional, secular films.  This doesn't mean that Frodo really destroyed the ring and that Vader really was Luke's father.
  • Feelings can be manipulated and misunderstood too easily.  How can we be sure we're not misinterpreting an emotional reaction to a concept that we desperately want to be real?
  • Faithful people have made life decisions based on perceived spiritual promptings that have yielded very poor results.  Why would God use a method that can be so easily and so disastrously misunderstood?
What I want to address, however, is an issue I've never considered before (although I'm sure others have beaten me to it).  Look at the verse directly after Moroni's promise:
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
All things.  This makes it sound like you should be able to say a prayer in which you explain to God that you've done a lot of research and that, according to the numbers, you think the Kansas City Royals are going to win the World Series this year.  Then you'll receive a burning in your bosom confirming that your conclusion was correct and you'll be able to put a whole bunch of money down on them and rake in the cash when they surprise everyone in October.

But more importantly than that, it makes it sound like you should be able to receive heavenly confirmation of some shady aspects of the church.  If the Spirit is supposed to testify to us of the truth of all things, maybe Mormons should start praying about things that fall into doctrinal gray areas.  How many times have you heard a member of the church bear testimony of receiving a personal spiritual affirmation that Nephi did the right thing when he cut off Laban's head?  That Ammon was justified in cutting off all those arms?  That Joseph Smith was doing God's work by instituting polygamy and then publicly lying about it?  That God was behaving admirably by waiting until 1978 to direct his church to cut it out with the racism?  That the penalties involved in the old temple rituals were inspired of God but somehow not necessary anymore?

If the Holy Ghost works the way that Mormon scriptures claim it does, then praying about any one of those things should bring about a good, confident feeling of warmth.  The most common explanation I've heard from Mormons for some of the less glamorous facets of the church is "we don't understand it, but we know the church is true, so we can take it on faith."  Has anyone ever gotten up in fast and testimony meeting to proudly declare that he prayed and received a testimony that the need for the priesthood ban was true?

Somehow, bizarrely, Mormonism has managed to teach its people to ignore its advertised method of determining truth when the method becomes inconvenient.  This goes beyond confirmation bias and unreliable feelings.  It's the culture, the indoctrination and the tendency to cling to any frail shred of approved reasoning for dear life.  Because I'm betting that if you approach a typical faithful Mormon and challenge him to pray about the truthfulness of the priesthood ban, you'll get some creative responses from him about how that's not how it works or maybe about how he doesn't need to because he knows the church is true.

But Moroni laid it out so directly:  The truth of all things.  Not just the things that appear moral in current society.  Not just the things that are easier to digest.  All things.

Maybe next time a family member embroils me in a tedious religious discussion, I'll try extending that kind of challenge.  


  1. You should try that on your family. Most mormons I know would use the reasoning that there are some things we aren't supposed to know which contradicts that scripture completely.

    I think there are Mormons who would get up in church and bear testimony of the ban. Have you heard of the Mormon rancher in Nevada named Cliven Bundy? He's been fighting the government. His son is named Ammon, by the way. Here's a quote he made in public a couple of weeks ago:

    "They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?”

    I think he's very capable of saying something like that from the pulpit.

    1. That's a good point. I was just reading about that guy today.

  2. A happy man, great in girth, would bring donuts to work every morning, share with others and enjoy them himself. He was told by his doctor that he had to lose weight and put on a very strict diet. Each day he would come to work sad, without donuts. Then one morning he arrived proudly carrying a box of donuts. His co-workers asked him about the donuts and the diet he was supposed to be on. He said, "On my way to work this morning I was really craving donuts. As I approached the bakery I prayed. I told the Lord how much I wanted donuts this morning. If he wanted me to have a donut, to give me a sign by having a parking spot open, right in front of the bakery. . . . . Sure enough, 6th time around, there it was!"

    This man really was lucky. He was answered not just with a warm feeling, but physical proof that he should have the donuts.

    1. I know these things to be true. With every fiber of my being. And every calorie in that donut.