Getting Along < Shared Belief < Conversion

The Book of Mormon is an absolutely remarkable text of religious psychology. At various points in the text, certain terms are used to make fine distinctions between very specific states of mind and heart. And the consequences of these states of mind and heart are spelled out in terms of social trends in communities.

When I say I know the Book of Mormon is true, part of that statement includes my conviction that it conveys real history of real people and real phenomena. The other part of that statement is that its unique picture of religious psychology is accurate. This morning, my reading in 3 Nephi reinforced this conviction in me.

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Learning to think…about faith

If we are serious about 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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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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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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Spiritual Experiences, Motivated Reasoning, and Objectivity

A sometimes-perplexing issue in Latter-Day Saint epistemology is the question of how we value what we call “spiritual experiences.” We believe that God can communicate to us through powerful feelings, which critics sometimes dismiss as the elevation emotion, as if they have somehow determined that God cannot or would not use the medium of emotion to communicate with us. I have a little more in-depth discussion of what we call “spiritual experiences” here in my post on epistemology, and I also recommend Blake Ostler’s FAIR presentation on that topic. We also have a collection of witness testimony that gives a good idea of the breadth of our experiences.

But for the sake of this discussion, I want to focus on the question of our feelings. Are they valuable in helping us to know what is true? And to what extent? Are they more or less valuable than reason?

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A Love Note to the Universalists

For believing Latter-day Saints, universalism speaks to a legitimate problem and a legitimate yearning.

The problem universalism speaks to is as follows: exaltation is the product of choices in the direction of eternal life (God’s life) that are made by souls who see their options with clarity.  In mortality, many of us — to some extent all of us — have trouble seeing our choices with clarity.  Some of the reasons for this (sin, rebellion) are within our control, but other reasons for our inability to see clearly (culture, trauma, neurological wiring, lack of opportunity) are to some extent not within our control.  So after this life, there will be periods of time where people come to see reality with the clarity that has not been possible in mortality.  Universalists are confident that everyone who sees with this clarity will choose eternal life, or that God will somehow unilaterally impose eternal life on everyone, regardless of their choices.

The legitimate yearning that universalism answers is the desire to be with loved ones for eternity.  Latter-day Saint universalists see in the statement “families can be together forever” not a statement of possibility, but a statement of divine intention.  They view any possibility of eternal separation from loved ones as being contrary to God’s plan, and view the eternal gathering of our Heavenly Parents’ children as being an ideal that is fully within our Heavenly Parents’ power to achieve.

There is a degree of legitimate truth in these universalist ideas, and we would do well to honestly acknowledge that.

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That is Not Gaslighting.

That thing that really bothers you, doesn’t bother me is not gaslighting.  It’s expressing a difference in perspective.

I and many other people are aware of this thing that you find distressing, but we are at peace with it is not gaslighting.  It’s an affirmation that different people can process things in different ways.

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