Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Logical Construction of Faith, Part 2: Axioms, Assumptions, and the Root of Disagreement

Early last week I wrote about a system of axioms on which I build and explore my faith. I pointed out then that my axioms did not include things such as the truthfulness of the LDS church or even the Book of Mormon. My decision to neglect these ideas is rooted in two strongly held beliefs.

First, I think they are lousy (and lazy) axioms. Making a church true by axiom would force me to accept all of its teachings outright and would effectively stifle critical thought. Are there people who adopt such axioms? I'm convinced there are; and the elitist snob in me feels like the result is shallow faith. (Yeah, that contradicts my 10th axiom, but I'm not going to claim that I'm not a hypocrite in some matters).

Second, leaving out that kind of detail from my axioms allows me to explore most other religions using the same framework (with some obvious and mild revisions for the non Christian religions). Although not perfectly universal, it is sufficiently flexible for me to build a shared understanding of the beliefs of those who don't share the same conclusions as my own.

The simultaneous strength and flaw of these axioms is that they necessitate at least one additional assumption to get anywhere. most notably, we have to adopt a canon of some sort so that we can begin to formulate conclusions. And the choice of canon can have a severe effect on the conclusions reached.

Catholics, using their canon, arrived at the conclusion of the Trinity. Using the LDS canon, however, one is required to reject the Trinitarian nature of God. Some other differences that can develop based on the choice of canon are infant baptism, the form of baptism, and the nature of Heaven.

There is one very important principle to remember about this approach to exploring religion: the assumptions must preclude the conclusions.

Perhaps that seems like a really obvious principle, but it is one that I feel like we far too often forget.  I recall numerous bouts of Bible thumping as a missionary.  I was convinced my religion was right and I was going to prove it to anyone who disagreed.  Eventually, and not without shame, I realized that I was entirely unconvincing with this approach because I was always arguing from my conclusions, but never addressing the difference of assumptions between myself and my opponent.  I would wager that, almost without exception, if I were to start with an understanding of their assumptions, I would find their conclusions quite reasonable.

To illustrate the point, I'll share the criticism I've heard from numerous Mormons against infant baptism.  Typically, it goes along the lines of:
  1. In the Book of Mormon, it says that infant baptism is an abomination.
  2. Look at this other evidence in the Bible
  3. Therefore, infant baptism is wrong.
I've known a lot of Mormons that think that is a convincing argument.  If you're arguing with a Catholic, however, the argument is worthless; it presupposes the Book of Mormon is true.  Yes, the argument goes to the Bible for corroborating evidence, but it only accepts evidence that supports a conclusion that necessitates the Book of Mormon.

If you begin with the Catholic assumptions--baptism as a necessary ordinance for salvation, for instance--infant baptism could actually be described as charitable. 

The frustrating part, I believe, for many Mormons is that accepting the LDS canon explicitly resolves a lot of these issues.   Mormons don't have to make any additional assumptions beyond the choice of canon.  Catholics, on the other hand, have a far more ambiguous canon on which to base their conclusions.  It's much easier to simply look at the Bible to corroborate the Book of Mormon than it is to look at the Bible as a complete canon.

Unfortunately, arguing about conclusions without the context of assumptions is a trap we fall into even within our religions.  In recent years, I have engaged in multiple discussions with other Mormons about the origin and duration of the Church's priesthood ban.  According to most, the priesthood ban was God's will for the Church.  The argument usually starts with Wilford Woodruff's statement that "The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray."  Based on this statement, it is claimed that the leaders of the Church couldn't possibly inject their own personal views and biases into the teachings and policies of the Church.  Therefore, the priesthood ban had to be the will of God.

Personally, I think the idea that the leaders of the Church can't inject their personal views into teachings and policies is an over-interpretation of President Woodruff's statement.  Given some personal observations and evidence (for examples relating to the priesthood ban, see Chapter 4 of this book), I'm inclined to believe that the Lord allows the leaders a lot more latitude in these matters than we think--I assume He wants us to work most things out for ourselves.  On this assumption, and given the rampant racism of that period in history, I'm inclined to believe that the priesthood ban was motivated, at least in some significant portion, by racism.  I also believe it lasted as long as it did because of blatant racism.

Those are two wildly different conclusions.  The latter of those conclusions is considered heretical by more orthodox Mormons.  But sit back and consider this question:

  • Is the assumption that Church leaders allow their own biases and preferences to influence policy and teaching an unreasonable assumption?
Now ask yourself the following question:
  • If I assume that leaders allow their biases and preferences to influence policy, it is unreasonable to think that the priesthood ban was racially motivated?
In my experience, it's usually pretty easy to pick at someone's conclusion.  It's usually a lot harder to fault a person for their assumptions.  So the next time we disagree with someone, perhaps we can resist the urge to fixate on their conclusion.  Perhaps we can step back and look at where they're coming from.  Perhaps we can stop dismissing and questioning the faith and commitment of others when their beliefs fail to conform to our own.  Mostly, I hope we can learn to ask "How did you get to that conclusion?" and then calmly wait for the answer.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Logical Construction of Faith, Part 1: Axioms of Faith

Probably the best course I ever took in my education was Foundations of Mathematics taught by Steve MacDonald. It was a course that not only changed the way I looked at math and statistics, but the way in which I looked at the world.

To start the course, we studied logical structures and how to construct verifiable and indisputable proofs. We would then use these tools to reconstruct the very building blocks of our mathematical knowledge.

One of the segments that really stood out to me was "The Axiomatic Approach to the Real Number System." An axiom is a statement we assert to be true without proof. Very commonly, we assert their truth based on experience and common sense. If we are a little less academic in describing axioms, we say they are true because we can't imagine how to prove they are false.

Some examples of axioms in the real number system are

x + 0 = x (additive identity)
x + y = y + x (commutivity of addition)
x * 1 = x (multiplicative identity)
x (a + b) = x*a + x*b (distributive property)

There are 13 such axioms. If we ever were to find a counter example to one of those axioms, much of our mathematical theory would be reduced to a steaming pile of crap.

The choice of axioms, it turns out, can have a dramatic effect on our conclusions. For example, using the axioms, we can prove that -x * -1 = x (that is, the product of two negatives is a positive number). This is only true, however, if we accept the distributive axiom. If we reject that axiom, we are forced to conclude that the product of two negatives is also negative (-1 * -x = -x).

What a difference the axioms can make!

With some time, I began to wonder if the axiomatic approach to faith might be a good way to explore both my religion and religion in general.  As it turns out, this approach has really helped me understand not only my faith, but the faith of others.  In fact, the choice of axioms one adopts in their religion is extremely important in understanding their religion.

And so, I'd like to present the axioms of my faith.  I assume these are true, without proof, for no other reason than I feel good about assuming they are true.  They closely mimic the LDS Articles of Faith (okay, I've outright plagiarized them) , but I don't accept all of the Articles as axiomatic (that doesn't mean I think they aren't true, just that I don't accept them without proof or consider them essential starting points to building theology).  The entirety of my faith is built on these axioms.

  1. I believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
  2. I believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
  3. I believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
  4. I believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism; Fourth, reception of the Holy Ghost.
  5. I believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy.
  6. I believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.
  7. I believe that revealed scripture, as accepted through formal canonization, contains the word of God.
  8. I believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and I believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.
  9. I believe that through the revelatory process, each individual may become acquainted with God and understand His will.
  10. I claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of my own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
  11. I believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

One thing that these axioms do not do is establish the truthfulness of any denomination of Christianity.  In other words, I do not accept as axiomatic that the LDS Church is the true church of God.  I also do not accept as an axiom the truthfulness of such books of scripture as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  Those books become admitted through a subsequent assumption (more on assumptions later this week) of the Church's canon.  If I reject the Church's canon, then any conclusions that depend on those books may no longer be supported.

In closing, allow me to circle back to the fact that these axioms do not, by themselves, establish the truthfulness of any denomination of Christianity.  This was a deliberate decision on my part.  Moving on from these axioms to build any body of faith will require additional assumptions.  The validity of the conclusions reached will depend on the validity of the additional assumptions.  I feel that, beyond these axioms, any additional assumptions are prone to a great deal of subjectivity--a characteristic that isn't highly valued in axioms (truth be told, some of these axioms are more subjective than a pure academic would probably be comfortable with).  The influence that these additional assumptions have on the conclusions we reach is something I plan to explore later this week.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why I Continue to Be Mormon

There are things about me that are imprinted on my soul.  They are irrevocable and irreversible.  They will always be a part of me and I will always embrace them.

For me, being Mormon is not one of those things.

I choose to be mormon.  Some days, it's a harder choice than on others.  But let's be clear--it is not an indisputable part of my character.  It is a choice that I make.

Perhaps this is an odd proclamation to make.  Afterall, there aren't exactly scores of people out there dying to know why I choose mormonism.  For most everyone I know, I imagine they consider just a part of who I am.  And it is quite possible that the people who do question my commitment to my faith are those who share my faith.

If you know me at all, you know that I have a lot of misgivings about some things in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There are policies and cultural constructs that I simply do not agree with.  In recent years, I've gradually become more outspoken with my dissent, but have generally avoided laying it out formally.  I've rarely attached my name to it.  Recently, I've decided that I need to step out from under the cloak of anonymity.  From now on, I am going to speak honestly and candidly about what I believe, especially within the circle of mormonism.

Undoubtedly, this will be rough for some people.  Criticizing a person's religious choices usually causes pain (what would be the point of religious conviction if it didn't).  But when religious choices get criticized by someone inside the faith, that pain comes with a sense of betrayal.  Causing hurt and offense is not my goal (although it may be an inevitable side effect of the things I say).  My goal is to be heard.  My goal is to be understood.  My goal is to help others see that when they question my Christianity because of my political views, I'm as offended as they are by my politicial views; to help others see that when they criticize my commitment to the LDS Church because I disagree with the way it has structured its scouting program, I find that as cutting a wound as they find my disagreement.  My hope is that those people who tell me that--because I think women should have a more active and prominent role in church leadership--I should find the door and leave will understand that their directive is as painful to me as my beliefs are to them.  I want these people to see me not as an enemy to their faith, as a fellow traveler of faith in a world of uncertainty.

In return, perhaps I can learn to be a little less abrasive in my presentation.

So, here I am, preparing myself to be open about my minority views in the LDS church (the name Uncommon Dissent is a shameless perversion of the title of one of my favorite LDS blogs, but I think it captures very well the essence of how I feel as I take on this task).  It seemed appropriate to start with an explanation of why I continue to be mormon.  The simple answer is this:

I believe it is true.

The long answer is that I remember how I felt one day in seminary when we studied the atonement, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I remember how I sobbed in sadness at the depiction of His death.  I remember how I bawled even harder in the joy I felt from the depictions of His resurrection.  I remember being bowled over by those same emotions more than a year later when I studied the life of Joseph Smith.

I remember being overwhelmed with a divine joy when I listened to a Ukrainian woman tell me the dream that led her to baptism, and feeling that same joy when she was baptized.  I remember laying my hands on people's heads and watching them be healed of their infirmities.

Most of all, I remember the way I feel when I truly prepare myself to receive the sacrament (something I don't do well enough often enough).

By the way, those are things that are imprinted on my soul.

So I haven't left the church (though I've definitely considered it a couple of times) because I believe this is the church of Jesus Christ (yes, I said believe.  Not know.  But that's a topic for a different day).  Keep that in mind as I write more in the future.  I'm about to express my faith.  I'm also about to express my misgivings, my doubts, and my fears.  Most importantly, I'm going to express me.  It might just be the best window you'll ever get into who I am.