In order to enter graduate school to pursue a Masters degree, I had to take the Graduate Record Exam. Then several years later, when I decided to pursue a doctoral degree, I had to take the GRE a second time. One delightfully enjoyable part of the exam dealt with testing a person’s ability to reason logically. On one exam, I scored higher than 93% of the other students taking the exam, and on the other, I scored higher than 98% of the other students. I presume these other students were fairly intelligent people, as they were all obviously pursuing graduate studies as well, but even if they were completely average people, I still felt pretty good about my score.
Unfortunately, I have come to realize that the ability to reason logically also has its drawbacks, the largest being the frustration which comes from knowing that over 90% or more of the population can’t reason as logically. Naturally, this makes almost all political speeches infuriating, even more so when people seem to think the politician is saying something useful, which is rarely the case even with candidates I like.
Occasionally, I’ll hear a politician or a pundit say something logical and I’ll think, “Oh, how logical,” and immediately I’ll see others who hear the same thing and say, “That’s absurd,” and then spend all of their energy trying to prevent any real progress in almost every field. I simply can’t understand their inability to understand. How can’t they see how logical it is?
The same thing happens within the Mormon Church as well. The Church’s position on same-sex marriage, for example, is that it is wrong, because two men married to each other cannot procreate. They must, therefore, remain celibate. I pointed out to a prominent Mormon writer that this position was illogical. If two men married to each other cannot procreate, it certainly didn’t seem likely to me that those same two men, remaining celibate, would do much better.
“I don’t see the logic of your point,” he said in confusion.
I was astounded. I explained it in several different ways, and he could never understand, while to me it seemed so clear that anyone at all could grasp it immediately.
I decided that not understanding logical positions must be deliberate on the part of this man and of all the many other people in power, both in and out of the Church, who take these opposing positions. They don’t want to see the logic and so refuse to see it. It’s not that they’re incapable of reasoning, I conclude; they are simply too afraid or too selfish to do it, because they are benefitting in some way by believing, or saying they believe, something illogical.
But now I’m not so sure. It would seem that even if one can’t develop logical thoughts on one’s own, one should still be able to follow a logical line of reasoning when it is presented carefully, step by step. And yet, so often, a great many people seem incapable of this as well. Is it an innate incapacity, I wonder, a lack of education in how to use a capacity they do have, or is it simply that selfish refusal to listen?
Of course, in religious circles there is also the sin of “rationalization.” If we don’t understand something, we have to accept it anyway or we are committing the grave sin of not having enough faith. This is, unfortunately, how various religions have kept their people oppressed for centuries. We have only to consider Galileo and others like him to see how religious leaders for some reason frequently don’t like their followers to use their minds to the fullest extent.
In the LDS Church, we also feel afraid at times to use our minds. We are theoretically encouraged to use them all the time, of course, but only to a point. Education is highly praised because “the glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). Further, we hear that “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:18-19).
We are told to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). This doesn’t mean simply to read a lot, but also to think and ponder upon what we study. And questioning is a part of pondering. It is only after doing all of this that we are supposed to come to our decisions. “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8) (See also D&C 50:10-12).
LDS doctrine encourages us to question and be “objective.” But if we ever come up with an answer other than that given by the Church, we have sinfully jumped the boundary and instantly become “bad” or at best “deceived.” “O…the foolishness of men! When they are learned, they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not” (2 Nephi 9:28). So we are only allowed to question if we promise to come up with the same answer that the Church gives, an atmosphere which does not allow for much real questioning. Mormons struggling to have an intellectual life need only remember the excommunication of the September Six to realize that questioning in and of itself is often an excommunicable offense.
So what do I do if my logic tells me something is wrong with a particular Church policy? I admit I have a good deal of confidence in my reasoning ability. But then, as I see over and over, so do those who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag. If I in my 98 percentile “greatness” can so easily see through the thinking systems of people who firmly believe they’re being logical, isn’t it also remotely possible that my own reasoning process doesn’t quite compare to God’s?
That not only seems possible but in fact rather likely. But what do I do with that information? Throw up my hands and say there’s no point in trying to understand, that I simply have to accept whatever the Church tells me is God’s word, however illogical it might seem to my primitive mind?
Something about that smacks of the coward’s way out, rather than as the humble submissiveness of the truly faithful. It’s easy to give up and blindly follow what someone else tells me to do, but if this constitutes “growth,” I can’t believe God meant for growth to be so easy. In fact, it seems to me that almost all of my growth has come during times when I was intellectually and emotionally in conflict with Church teachings. I felt I was a tiny seedling fighting amongst other, larger plants for the narrowest bit of sunlight from above. It seemed sometimes as if I had different information than other Mormons had, and thus naturally came to different conclusions. But wouldn’t Heavenly Father want all of us to have the same basic information?
I don’t think so. For one thing, he has given us different intellectual abilities, and this automatically means we see the same information differently, which in effect means we are receiving different information. As a minor example, my first partner could never remember the cable channels. “What channel is AMC?” “26.” “What channel is TBS?” “17.” I knew all the major channels after a few days, but when months went by and he kept asking, it became hard not to answer, “17, just like it was yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.” I thought he was just being lazy, but he could bring a bag of trash home, bits of chopped picture moldings, and in a day he’d created a beautiful jewelry box. He could see that box in the trash, while I saw only trash. Further, a friend of mine who’d earned his MA at the age of 20 would continually talk about people without remembering their names. “You know, the guy who’s a carpenter. The guy who was born in Kansas on September 12, 1953, then moved to Washington for four years, lived for a while in Tennessee, and then moved here. You know, the guy whose phone number is 555-2198.” This happened repeatedly with name after name. He simply processed and recorded information differently than I did.
We cannot help but see a different portion of the sky from where we are struggling upward in the jungle growth. I used to believe that my 98 percentile reasoning ability meant I had shot out ahead and was basking in more complete sunlight, but frankly now I’m not sure exactly what it does mean. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t mean I’m growing toward an artificial sunlamp pointed in my direction. If the only way I can prove I’m not deceived by artificial light is to close my leaves and not accept any light at all, I think the plants near me demanding such sacrifice must have an ulterior motive.
It seems odd that Heavenly Father would put us in conflict with one another for truth as plants are in conflict for light, but it appears that God in his wisdom must see some benefit in our intellectual struggling to follow the light. Perhaps we have to fight for it, show our sincere desire for it, in order to earn it. We are not, it is certain, being cultivated peacefully in God’s greenhouse, but our competition doesn’t have to be so aggressive that we kill off all other vegetation. Some plants do better in low light, some need continual bright sunshine, and some need morning sun only. Plants in the wild use all of their natural and God-given abilities to gain all the nutrients, water, and sunlight that they need, adapting to their environments in numerous creative ways. If God gave us reasoning ability, he expects us to use it. If that means we ultimately grow differently than others around us, then that too is part of God’s plan.
When I first began coming into conflict with the Church, I was scared. Those who leave the Church through disinterest are one thing, but there are those of us who leave or disagree because we do care deeply enough about religion to study it and think about it often. We want nothing more than to understand religion enough to live it well in order to please God. The last thing we want is to take a path that would lead us away from what we love. So when we disagree after having used the gift of reason that God gave us, it seems overly harsh when Church leaders condemn us for having been “deceived.”
It all becomes so complicated then that we want to give up, give in, and go back to the simple and easy life of following rather than of thinking. But as sure as we have a spiritual witness of anything in our lives, we have a testimony of the absolute necessity of using our ability to reason. As much as we sometimes would like to give it up, we can’t because we know that to do so would be a sin.
All we are doing is trying to live the best life we can, so it seems disingenuous for leaders to dismiss us as faithless. We deserve more than patronizing condemnation from the Church. There is a delicately balanced ecosystem in nature, and eradicating one species of plant we don’t like has enormous repercussions, much less the intellectual deforestation that is actually occurring. Heavenly Father put all life on Earth, and there is as much purpose for each of us who question as there is for any stinkweed or briar patch we may want to squirt our weedkiller on. And it just may be that our briars aren’t part of a noxious weed at all but are instead the protective briars we find on the lovely rosebush or on the beautiful bougainvillea.
For those who would chop us down, I ask that they let nature take its course instead. We too have to accept their differences, but we don’t have to accept their obstruction of our attempt to grow. There is room for all of us here in God’s magnificent garden.