Imagine a 1st Grader confidently telling his buddies on the playground how babies are made:
"Yeah, I know all about it," he nods knowingly. "A stork delivers the baby to the doorstep. Believe me, it's true."
Now we're adults, but we're still children in our understanding when it comes spiritual truths. We aren't even potty-trained yet (as evidenced by the fact we still sin in our diapers).
In fact, we are so error-prone that it reminds me of the nine-year-old boy I read about online, whose mother wrote:
We were driving in the car when my nine-year-old son suddenly started screaming, ‘It burns! It burns!’ We frantically tried to figure out what was hurting him when he blew something out of his nose. I picked it up. My son had stuck a mint cough drop up his nose because it was for congestion and he thought it would clear up his nasal stuffiness!
When it comes to objectivity and certainty, it might be a good idea to sprinkle a little pixie dust of humility and nuance on our truth claims.
1. Historical Truth Claims
As you know, I majored in history in college. My favorite definition of history is “a bridge connecting the past with the present, and pointing the road to the future.” (Allan Nevins, “A Proud Word for History,” in The Vital Past: Writings on the Uses of History, 1985, p. 237).
It has been suggested that history most closely resembles cartography.
A blue shape on a map, for instance, represents the Great Salt Lake (but does that shape capture the smell of salt or the sound of seagulls?).
Like maps, history is a representation, not a re-creation of the original. The verb to represent means “to stand for; to symbolize.”
I agree with Richard Bushman when he said that history “must constantly be recast to be relevant, the past forever reinterpreted for the present.” (“Faithful History,” in Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History, 1992, p. 1)
In the end, what we believe about history says more about us than it does about those who lived in the past.
My point is this: our orientation to the past is not backwards but inwards.
The difference between history and memory is important. On the one hand there are stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments (an historical artifact), and on the other there is the effect those commandments had upon a believing people (preserved by their collective memory).
But the termites of time are constantly eating away at the pillars of the past. (Ask a member of the Church at random to name a handcart company, and the answer will usually be, "Willie" or "Martin." Why these two companies and no others?)
"The most constant element of recollection is forgetting [so] rememoration can occur at all. . . . Reduction is the essential precondition to representation. Loss is what makes our memory of the past possible at all.” (Richard Terdiman, Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis, 1993, p. 22)
What we forget is as revealing (if not more so) about who we are as what we choose to remember.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Latter-day Saint historian, said, “A frontier is not a geographical space but a social space, an environment in which two different cultures meet and interact. In this sense, Latter-day Saints are at the pushing edge of a new frontier.” (“A Pioneer Is Not a Woman Who Makes Her Own Soap,” Ensign, June 1978, p. 55)
When we make historical truth claims, we have to remember that we cannot separate ourselves from the past.
And remember . . . we weren't there!
2. Doctrinal Truth Claims
I believe in the Doctrine of Christ.
But there are several reasons why I might want to be modest in making doctrinal truth claims:
2.1. We do not know all the doctrine that exists out there, nor could we comprehend all truth as God does. (In my experience, we get a glimpse at the truth a bit beyond where we currently stand, but we can't see much farther than that until we first follow the glimpsed-at-truth.)
2.2. We are not very good at discerning between doctrine pertaining to the telestial vs. terrestial vs. celestial kingdoms, but seem to lump all doctrine ― whatever its provenance ― into the same Bundt cake. This is dangerous because all doctrine is not created equally. We don't want to be following telestial or terrestial laws because such laws do not have the power to exalt us in the celestial kingdom. And yet, the bread-and-butter doctrine we are taught in Church is oriented primarily towards telestial and terrestial practices (i.e., tithing, word of wisdom, ministering, etc).
2.3. We know that "many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God" will be revealed, which may contradict our current understanding of doctrine, so maybe we should use more semi-colons and fewer periods.
2.4. The truths we have all learned from God by personal revelation lose something in translation. My neighbor's revelation won't apply to me or you because revelation is usually person-specific and not universally applicable. The great danger is to create religious traditions based on an individual's private revelation.
2.5.Maybe we should just read Romans 14.
Objection, Your Honor!
Somebody might say, "Hold on, Tim. If we don't have objectivity, are you arguing for subjectivity? Without a monolithic moral compass, won't we be forever tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine?"
Good point. Here's my response:
1. Historical truth claims do not provide a sure foundation.
2. Doctrinal truth claims do not provide a sure foundation.
3. So what doesprovide an anchor for our souls?
The Jews will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation.
But behold, according to the scriptures, this stone shall become the great, and the last, and the only sure foundation, upon which [we] can build.
If we base our faith (or testimonies) on historical truth claims or doctrinal truth claims, are we standing on "the only sure foundation?"
What if the only "safe foundation" is love?
What if the pure love of Christ is greater than historical or doctrinal accuracy?
What if His love is the only thing that will never fail?
If we have to choose a hill to die on, let it be Calvary.