Learning to think…about faith

If we want to avoid the pitfall of lazy learning, we need to be mindful of our reasoning. It’s a process that adds a lot of work to all of our learning, but it’s absolutely essential if we want the best possible outcomes in our learning process.

When evaluating the truthfulness of a particular claim, we need to understand some basic rules of inference in order to sidestep fallacies that muddle our thinking. It’s common for those without this kind of training to focus exclusively on whether or not a particular claim is factual and disregard whether that claim logically supports the conclusion being drawn.

If you have never studied logic, here is a brief primer on some basic concepts (thanks to Meagan Kohler for her assistance!). Or, you can skip down to some concrete examples for Latter-day Saints.

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What does it mean that the church is true?

Is the church “true?” I believe so, and that question matters a great deal to me. Why? Well, for starters, I pay 10% of my income to this institution, and devote a lot of time and energy to it. I have no interest in doing all of that just for the sake of belonging to a community (I can join or form any number of communities) or out of a sense of heritage, or any fear-based reasons, like “how else would I raise my kids?!!” There are a number of belief communities that I have belonged to throughout my life that I no longer belong to, because I no longer hold the beliefs that stand at the center of each of those communities’ existence.
But how does one even go about deciding whether the church is true? There are a number of questions that inform our views of whether “the church is true” or not, and below are the questions I personally use for arriving at my answer. If you haven’t gone through the exercise of writing down a list like this, I highly recommend it as a way of bringing clarity to your seeking. My list:

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Types of Latter-day Saint Spiritual Experiences

“Spiritual Experiences” is a term that needs defining among Latter-day Saints. Many of us assume that a powerful emotion at church is a spiritual experience, but it might just be a powerful emotion. Or an emotional response to an authentic spiritual experience.

But Latter-day Saint spiritual experiences are vastly greater in variety. Below is a list of different types of experiences that we employ in our discussions of why we feel justification for our beliefs.

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We’re all biased. Let’s explore how.

We all have biases of different kinds. Below is a collection of typical biases, many of which are useful in discussions of faith.

Adapted from a full list of cognitive biases at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

Anchoring or focalism The tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor”, on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information acquired on that subject).

Attribute substitution Occurs when a judgment has to be made (of a target attribute) that is computationally complex, and instead a more easily calculated heuristic attribute is substituted. This substitution is thought of as taking place in the automatic intuitive judgment system, rather than the more self-aware reflective system.

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Quotes and Scriptures on Conversion

True conversion is more than merely having a knowledge of gospel principles and implies even more than just having a testimony of those principles. It is possible to have a testimony of the gospel without living it. Being truly converted means we are acting upon what we believe and allowing it to create “a mighty change in us, or in our hearts.” In the booklet True to the Faith, we learn that “conversion is a process, not an event. You become converted as a result of … righteous efforts to follow the Savior.” It takes time, effort, and work. My great-great-grandmother had a strong conviction that the gospel was more important for her children than all that the world had to offer in the way of wealth and comfort because she had sacrificed, endured, and lived the gospel. Her conversion came through living the principles of the gospel and sacrificing for them.

-Bonnie L. Oscarson, Be Ye Converted

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Little Prayers

Sometimes I am embarrassed about the things I say in my prayers. Sometimes I’m embarrassed while I am still praying. Here I am, getting down on my knees to commune with the Creator of the Universe and the Author of the Plan of Redemption and what do I have on the agenda? Well, dear reader, I’m not going to tell you exactly. See above, re: embarrassment. But you can fill in your own examples: concerns about bills or work, fears about work, little worries about the future. Day-to-day problems that even I won’t remember a week from now.

There are times when shame washes over me, and I apologize for taking my Heavenly Father’s time up with such trivialities. Not that I think He’s really short on time, in a literal sense. If He can field billions of prayers a day, I’m sure He’s got a handle on the logistics. But sometimes when I realize how tiny my concerns are, it makes me feel small.

But I think my shame is misplaced.

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Positively Biased for Conference

If you are hitching your happiness to things being a certain way, it’s a setup for suffering.

-Tara Brach

As General Conference approaches, Latter-Day Saints are going to be hearing conflicting messages on social media, and they can generally be grouped into two themes:

  • General Conference is coming, and we get to hear teachings from prophets. Hooray!
  • General Conference is coming, so brace yourself. There will probably be things said that are harmful or insensitive. You need to steel yourself against the possibility of being hurt.

The first theme is one that views Conference as a time of rejoicing. It affirms that Conference speakers are good people and that their messages are inspired. Whatever they say, it will be for our good.

The second theme views Conference as threatening. It is neutral or negative about the motivations and/or divinely-ordained callings of the speakers, and it doubts the capacity of the hearer to process conference messages in a healthy way.

Both themes reflect bias, and bias is not a bad thing. Everyone brings their biases and worldviews to every part of life — including faith — and people who claim to be unbiased are just demonstrating another form of cognitive bias called the Bias Blind Spot. For a lengthy list of cognitive, emotional and other forms of bias, see here.

There is no such thing as an unbiased viewing of General Conference, but it is possible for us to be mindful of what we bring to the Conference experience and respond to our biases (and conference) in ways that lead to our growth.

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3 Nephi and The Revealed Christ

I finished the Book of Mormon again a few weeks ago. This year, I didn’t have a specific theme to focus on, but I knew I wanted to do a writeup of impressions, and I had a thought to focus on 3 Nephi. It’s maybe the spiritual summit of the Book of Mormon text, but to be honest in all my readings of the BoM, I’ve never really applied myself to understand that book like I have others.

Here at the outset, I want to make a claim about the Book of Mormon in general, and 3 Nephi in particular. If you have never heard of Marcion and his heresy, he was a theologian in the early Christian community who developed a strong position that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God who had come in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. In Marcion’s thinking, The Jewish/Hebrew Jehovah was mean-spirited, ruthless, and cruel, while Christian Jesus of Nazareth was completely different: kind, loving, merciful, and so forth. Therefore, they could not be the same entity.

Parts of the Marcion heresy are still alive and well today, even among wonderful Christians around the world. But Latter-day Saints bring to our understanding a Book of Mormon witness that Jehovah and Jesus are one and the same. And 3 Nephi is the book where this reality is shown with the most clarity. 3 Nephi thoroughly destroys the Marcion heresy.

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How to be a Man

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This is the 300th week, and we’re covering the Priesthood session of the April 1994 General Conference.

“We must be there with the lambs when we are needed.” That’s what Elder Lindsay learned in relating one of the most poignant stories I’ve read in General Conference. One morning his 6-year old son called Elder Lindsay at work to excitedly say that the ewe he was in charge of caring for had had her lambs. “Please come home and help me take care of them,” his little boy said, but Elder Lindsay was busy. He stayed at work, telling his son everything would be fine.

Two hours later his son called back. “Daddy, these lambs aren’t doing very well. They haven’t been able to get milk from the mother, and they are very cold. Please come home.” Again, Elder Lindsay refused. 

Then a third phone call. ““Daddy, you’ve got to come home now. Those lambs are lying down, and one of them looks very cold.” Elder Lindsay gave his son advice on how to take care of the lambs, but he stayed at work, not getting home until two hours later.

I drove into the driveway of our home and was met by a boy with tear-stained eyes, carrying a dead lamb in his arms. His grief was overwhelming. Now I tried to make amends by quickly milking the mother sheep and trying to force the milk from a bottle down the throat of the now weak, surviving lamb. At this point, Gordon walked out of the room and came back with a hopeful look in his eyes. He said, “Daddy, I’ve prayed that we will be able to save this lamb, and I feel it will be all right.”

The sad note to this story, brethren, is that within a few minutes the second lamb was dead. Then with a look that I will remember forever, this little six-year-old boy who had lost both of his lambs looked up into his father’s face and with tears running down his cheeks said, “Daddy, if you had come home when I first called you, we could have saved them both.”

The name of Elder Lindsays’ talks is “Feed My Sheep,” and as you can see he does not pull any punches with his own poor decisions.

“Dear brethren of the priesthood,” he concludes: 

Those who are entrusted as keepers of the Lord’s precious flock—we must be there with the lambs when we are needed. We must teach with love, principles of faith, and goodness and be righteous examples to the lambs of our Heavenly Father.

This sacred duty is a defining attribute of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint man and especially a Latter-day Saint father. We are to feed the sheep, and we are to do so with love.

Elder Wirthlin, in his talk Live in Obedience, described how young horses were taught to be obedient and related:

When I asked how the gauchos taught the horses to be so obedient, I was informed that their training started when the horses were colts. Each one learned from its caring mother and from other mature horses. The gauchos began training the colts when they were young, with kindness, never using force of a lasso or a whip.

Elder Didier taught in Remember Your Covenants that:

As a husband and father and later as a grandfather, I was and still am responsible for the development, temporal support, protection, and salvation of my family.

And:

The husband and wife serve as partners in governing their family, and both act in joint leadership and depend on each other. They are united in the vision of their eternal salvation, one holding the priesthood, the other honoring and enjoying the blessings of it. One is not superior or inferior to the other. Each one carries his or her respective responsibilities and acts in his or her respective role.

The were some stern aspects of the talk but–like Elder Lindsay’s self-effacing story–they were directed towards the audience of men. Elder Monson, in The Priesthood – A Sacred Trust, cited President John Taylor: “If you do not magnify your callings, God will hold you responsible for those whom you might have saved had you done your duty.” As Elder Lindsay’s little boy said, “if you had come home… we could have saved them both.”

Even on the topic of brethren who are falling short in their duty, however, the sternness is tempered with love:

Brethren, there are tens of thousands of priesthood holders scattered among you who, through indifference, hurt feelings, shyness, or weakness, cannot bless to the fullest extent their wives and children—without considering the lives of others they could lift and bless. Ours is the solemn duty to bring about a change, to take such an individual by the hand and help him arise and be well spiritually. As we do so, sweet wives will call our names blessed, and grateful children will marvel at the change in Daddy as lives are altered and souls are saved.

I am so grateful for what I was taught growing up in the Restored Church of Jesus Christ. I learned from an early age what being a good man looked like. I learned that it meant the strength to be gentle, the humility to ask the Lord’s assistance to provide for my children, the compassion to recognize need, and the selflessness to give of myself.

I am far from perfect, but I thank God that at least I got the instructions, and I’ve had the chance to work to bend my stubborn, prideful, selfish nature to the beautiful, fulfilling work of service. The mistakes have all been mine–and so many remain–but for what good I’ve been able to offer my sweet children and my wife, the love of my life, I offer thanks to God for showing me the way.

We Love Best by Telling the WHOLE Truth

My friend and co-blogger Dan Ellsworth’s article in Public Square Magazine was prescient, given that just a few hours later Elder Holland’s address to BYU faculty and staff was published. Dan’s description of our tendency to hear what we want to hear as a form of idolatry is bracing but needed. “Ironically, one of our most persistent idolatries is the refashioning of the divinely revealed Christ into a sentimentally-appealing false Christ named ‘Jesus,’ who exists to make us all feel loved and happy,” he writes. I thought I would provide three examples of this trend I have noticed that buttress his point.

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