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|A Uniquely Mormon Mentality|
Feb. 20th, 2008 at 6:00 pm
Thanks to my friend Dan for that kind (and undeserved) intro. I thought for my first outing I’d post a meditation on knowledge, particularly what I think is our uniquely Mormon way of knowing. Every Primary student knows that we can ask God for revelation and expect to get a prayer answered. Our idea that we can all receive revelation, big and small, over our own area of stewardship, offends our Christian brethren. Our belief in personal revelation is unusual, but that alone doesn’t make us unique.
From what I have studied of other religions and epistemologies, what is unique about us among all other religions and philosophies, is that we believe what you do with the knowledge you gain determines how able you are to understand spiritual knowledge and then attain more.
Lots of people, to be sure, understand that you need a base of knowledge to master higher level knowledge, like needing to understand calculus and geometry before you can do calculus. But we are not just saying that you need an academic understanding of the first precepts; we believe that you must actually live according to them. For instance, it says in D&C 50,
And it doesn’t stop there. A third aspect of our uniquely Mormon mentality (I should be saying epistemology for you philosophers out there) is that you can’t stay put. You either receive more knowledge, and live according to it, and then receive more, or the process works backwards. You don’t live according to what you know, then what you know is taken away, and you know less, and then if you don’t live according to that, you know still less, and on and on until you know nothing at all! You can actually get stupider. As Alma says,
Usually we chalk this up to forgetfulness. People forget what they knew. And the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, are full of admonitions to remember. But in this passage Alma goes further than that. He says that this isn’t just forgetfulness. This is an actual loss of knowledge, which he describes as the chains of hell.
That’s a pretty wild idea, and offensive, I think, to a lot of people, especially in our modern age where people chafe when they are denied any information. Our culture does not accept that there are some things people are not worthy to comprehend. (And think hard about all that the word ‘comprehend’ entails.) It adds a new dimension to our “sacred-not-secret” mantra. There are some things people who are not living according to certain gospel principles cannot understand, no matter how much you try to explain to them.
We know that we are held accountable for the things we know, which is the fourth aspect in our unique Mormon way of knowledge. Very few non-Mormons accept that once you know something to be true, you are obligated to live according to that principle. And in some cases (like sons of Perdition) we believe it is better for you not ever to have known what you know.
But no matter what we do with our knowledge, it cannot help but change us. Just a small example shows what I mean. If you read your roommate’s journal without his permission and you discover in there that he’s secretly in love with your girlfriend, that changes you. Even if he never knows you knew, this fact will change you, and you can never go back. And you will not be able to treat him the same after that (even if you try to act the same, that will take effort, and that will have effects, no matter how slight), and in treating him differently, you change him as well.
SchrÃ¶dinger’s famous thought experiment with the cat showed how, according to our current understanding of quantum mechanics, the presence of an observer affects (or, more strictly speaking, causes) the outcome. As Mormons we would go further. We say that both observer and observed are changed by knowledge. For Mormons, curiosity can’t just kill the cat, it can kill you too.
I started pondering all this when I watched this clip of Helen Whitney (and the lively discussion about it at the link) talking about her “advice” to Dallin H. Oaks that we shouldn’t be so afraid of persecution and instead to just own our peculiarity. I think there is something deeper here than just being ashamed of our doctrine. The world wants to know about the Mormon esoterica, so they ask questions about our magic underwear and Kolob and our secret temple ceremonies, which most of us consider ancillary to our central doctrines. We think they’re missing the point. They accuse us of changing the subject, being ashamed, or using deception. But contra Whitney, I think there are just some things we just can’t explain very well.
Dan Ellsworth once gave me a book called Degenerate Moderns: Modernity As Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones. He makes an unabashedly ad hominem argument, showing how the personal lives of leading intellectuals affected the theories and ideologies they ended up espousing. I disagree with him on some of his examples. For example, he doesn’t prove his case with Freud or Luther. (On the other hand, if anything he goes too easy on Kinsey.) But his argument in general is very persuasive. I think Jones would say (somewhat ironically because he hates Freud) that their beliefs (about abortion, sexual morality, psychoanalysis) are sublimated defense mechanisms against their guilt at transgressing the law of chastity. But I think we would explain it a bit differently. We would say that, because of their transgressions, they actually don’t know any better. I’m not sure what to make of it myself, but I can’t have this discussion without mentioning Jesus’ accusation (and Joseph Smith’s) about sign-seeking.
What do you think? Does what we do affect our ability to know? Do you know people who know less now than they once did? Have you ever shared a sacred experience with someone, had them lose their faith in the mean time, and then remind them of that experience? What happened when you reminded them of that spiritual experience?