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.

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