Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What Should We Call Truth

By Megan Knobloch Geilman

[Editor's note: This essay was originally posted on December 24, 2013 with the status: Merry Christmas Eve!  A post on truth, specifically eternal truth.  Even though I quote Judeo/Christian/Mormon scripture, I tried to write this essay so that anyone could read and appreciate it.  Heck, even my atheist friends are really open minded.  I also get a little existential, but (hopefully) in an accessible way.]

In an age when there is incessant arguing over who is right and what is right—What if we all started asking: what is true?  

What is truth?

Truth is that indisputable "knowing" that something is. That this particular nugget has always existed as truth and that it's particular "truthiness" will always be, no matter what conditions or circumstances change.  Statements like "the sky is blue," "Life is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you're gonna get," and "God loves all his children" are easy for the majority of people to accept because they feel true.  It resonates with us.  Now I make jest with the lexicon above but I do believe truth exists, that it is real and that it will always be real. I have no doubt in my mind that there are facts of our existence and our place in the Universe and also that we can know this truth for ourselves. The Doctrine & Covenants states truth as such: "And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24).  Truth can be questioned, tested, and verified.  Truth is still truth and has always existed as truth whether anyone believes it or not.  Oh say, what is Truth!—truth is reason, truth eternal—intelligence, glory, light, and knowledge. Truth to me, is all that God knows and is—the characteristics, experiences, knowledge, and actions that make up this great divine being we call God.  In short, because I believe that God exists, I believe that truth exists.  And since I believe that God speaks to His children, I believe that we can know truth.  Line upon line, precept upon precept we can know truth for ourselves and that knowing truth will ultimately benefit us and make our lives better, our experiences more joyful and happy, our families more peaceful and safe, and our world a better place.

So where does Truth come from?

Since the beginning of time God has inspired people with truth.  Religion, science, philosophy, the arts—these are all disciplines that search for truth and in turn receive knowledge through inquiry, reason, even faith and prayer.  Some of the people God speaks to are Prophets who write some of the truth they receive down as scripture.  But God doesn't only speak to Prophets: all great writers, historians, musicians, artists, scientists and other creative types have been inspired. Handel's experiences in writing "The Messiah" were described akin to a series of spiritual manifestations. Max Planck, German physicist who worked on quantum theory relates "It was not by accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls."  God speaks to all of His children, regardless of time and space, in relation to how much truth they want to know and are willing to seek, and search, and find.

This particular fact has kept me deeply rooted in Mormonism ever since my youth, as Joseph Smith stated: "The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same."  Truth is everywhere, in everyone, in everything to varying degrees of "truthfulness."  Seeing truth in spectrum isn't fun for those black and white type thinkers—but I find comfort in the fact that when you look at gray close enough, it's just a lot of little black and white dots.  There is always truth, you sometimes just have to dig deeper to find it.  This requires patience, long suffering, and above all humility that we may not always have all the answers.

Why should we bother knowing Truth?

As we grow in learning and knowledge we inevitably come in contact with new facts or truths that sometimes seem at odds with what we already know.  I think that truth—eternal truth and the laws that actually govern truth don't change.  Sometimes, however, our understanding or the "truthfulness" of the law has to grow to accommodate new truths.  Remember how the law of gravity is supposed to be this all-encompassing universal law that applies no matter where we are in the universe...well, turns out that gravity might sort of possibly cease to function on a sub-atomic level.  Lots of hardworking scientists are currently in the process of figuring that out.  We once thought the Sun revolved around the Earth.  Before that the Earth was flat.  New learning means possibly revising what we knew to be true.  This does not mean that truth changes or isn't important, simply our understanding and/or application of it does.  It isn't that gravity ceases to exist, or didn't exist before, or is suddenly trivial, it just might be more complex then we previously understood.  The sky isn't literally blue—particles in the earth's atmosphere reflect blue light—but the statement "the sky is blue" is still true, we just understand it in a more complex way.  Even so, we want things to be more stable than this, so generally learning new things causes us unrest, and as human beings we dislike unrest.

This is why when we are presented with some fact or nugget that could contradict our previously known body of truth we pull back.  We are uncomfortable, we want it to go away.  Sometimes we decide we can only handle what truth we already hold and we unconsciously put a cap on how much truth we are willing to accept from God: there are scientists who still balk at the idea of a divine being and there are religious people who still don't accept the possibility of the Big Bang Theory or of Evolution.  Since we're most comfortable with truth we already accept, we like to surround ourselves with people who share the same beliefs.  Sociologists call this your "tribe."  Marketers call it a "demographic."  Some tribes I associate with are: White, Woman, Late twenty-something, Millennial, Mormon, Feminist, Married, Stay-at-Home, Mom, Heterosexual, Artist.  But we should always be willing to challenge our beliefs since truth will always stand up to scrutiny.  Truth, like cream, always rises to the top.  With the internet and social media we have the perception that we can easily have our beliefs tested, however since our interaction with the internet is guided by algorithm, we can easily get stuck in a "filter bubble" and not be exposed to different ideas.  We still have to go out of our way to get a different perspective.

For anyone that has ever learned something new that brought them peace or climactic understanding they will tell you that knowing truth is worth it.  That light bulb moment when inspiration hits and things suddenly make sense, the puzzle pieces fit together, one sees above the fray, the forest through the trees.  There is no feeling quite like it.  Even still, after we commit to new knowledge, we can still sometimes struggle, falter, and fall.  In the New Testament, Paul urged those recently baptized Jews: "Cast not away therefore thy confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.  For ye have need of patience, that after ye have done the will of God ye might receive the reward" (Hebrews 10:35-36).  Seeking for truth is hard, it takes patience and it's not a one time event—but it is so, so worth it.

Presentation of new knowledge creates conflict, and while contention is of the devil (3 Nephi 11:29), conflict is essential to our progression.  All conflict is the result of a failure to communicate, whether between ourselves and God, with each other, or within ourselves.  Perfect communication would result in perfect harmony, but anyone that has argued law knows that even our best words can fail us.  However without conflict, there is no resolution.  A fundamental characteristic of our time in mortality is that we must experience "opposition in all things" (2 Nephi 2:27).  Opposition creates conflict, but conflict (whether in this life or the next) ends in resolution.  Resolution is peace, joy, love—all the "fruits" of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  In facing these conflict-resolution situations we move from one sphere of knowledge to the next, ascending and progressing until that day when we will "know the truth of all things" (Moroni 10:5, Moses 6:61).

God wants us to search for truth and knowledge and He wants us to have it.  This exchange of us desiring knowledge and God granting it has been going on since the beginning of time—and as the human family progresses God is able to disseminate more and more truth at an exponentially faster pace.  Early on in human history he had to speak to His children in separate locales and teach them the same things.  Important inventions like the wheel and the light bulb were simultaneously invented at around the same time on different continents, much to the confusion and delight of scholars.  Jesus Christ visits the people in Jerusalem as documented in the Bible as well as some of his "other sheep" (John 10:16) in the American continents as relayed in the Book of Mormon, teaches his doctrine and establishes his Church.  As human history progresses, the interchange of knowledge among mankind has been able to happen at a higher speed in relation to the rate of the exchange.  In conjunction, God has been able to give more and more light and knowledge as we engage in this cycle of inquiry, exchange, questioning, seeking and finding.  After the Gutenberg press was invented and books were able to be printed for the first time en masse, huge leaps in humanity were made in all disciplines.  With the advent of technology and the internet, information can be created and disseminated more quickly than ever before in human history.  Little old, stay-at-home mom, me can write a few words and post them to the internet, circumventing all systemic hierarchies, and know that it has been read by 300 people within an hour—this is has never happened before in the earth's history!  Anyone and everyone has the ability to speak their truth and have it be heard publicly.  But just because information can be passed quickly and efficiently doesn't necessarily mean its true—so how can we know?

How can we know Truth?

While I was an LDS missionary I became very interested in finding a sort of scientific approach to revelation—a clear method I could use in receiving insight from God and then teaching it to others.  Over time I've had enough experiences to know certain ways that I know God is speaking to me or how to recognize Truth.  Most of these will be familiar to Mormons but most anyone can use them to their own advantage in coming closer to divinity and having a more peaceful, happy existence.

1) Obedience.  Specifically obedience to laws you already know.  The universe is governed by laws—laws like gravity that if you follow them you will be blessed (not falling down unnecessarily) and if you break them, or attempt to break them you can potentially face discomfort or even disaster (falling from great heights).  There are universal laws that govern everything: laws for health (if I eat healthy I will feel better, if I eat poorly I will get sick), laws for money (if I spend more than I earn I will be in debt), laws for education (if I study hard I will learn some things).  There are also laws governing the dynamics of movement, social behavior, thought, and beauty.  Nobody on earth knows all the laws all at once—even Jesus had to "increase in wisdom and stature" (Luke 2:52) and ascend "grace for grace" (D&C 93:12).  A lot of laws are spelled out in commandments written in the scriptures that make up the social codes of religion.  Laws, like all truth, exist eternally—they are not so much created as they are discovered.  You can call these principles or guidelines but the point is, when you follow them things get better and when you break them, things don't go so well.

The Doctrine & Covenants states: "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated"  All these laws have blessings attached to them that God wants to give to us.  This is why people who follow certain commandments will testify of the blessings of them.  If you ever find yourself envious of another's success whether in personal relationships, prosperity, or health--instead of allowing contention within yourself, try to identify what laws they might be being obedient to.  Trying to mimic someones actions verbatim to receive the same results will end in frustration, for there is infinite variety within the law.  Since I believe all these laws have something to do with Ultimate Truth (God), I believe if we do our best at following the laws we already know we can gain access to knowledge of more laws—like steps rising a staircase, and in consequence more truth.  We don't know all the laws but I believe we can learn more by having good stewardship and doing our best to follow the ones we do know.  

2) Study.  We have to do our part.  We have to show God that we want to know more.  In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord declares: "seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (88:118).  A lot of people think that "if God wants me to know something He will tell me"—and I think this can happen in cases where God needs you to know something immediately, like in cases of danger and the faith promoting stories that come with that.  But for the most part, I think God wants us to do some searching and pondering and seeking and knocking.  "Ask and ye shall receive" He says time and time again, "Knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (John 16:24, Matthew 7:7, Matthew 21:22, James 1:5, Enos 1:5, 3 Nephi 14:7, 3 Nephi 27, 29, D&C 88:63, D&C 4:7, D&C 49:26, D&C 103:31, D&C 66:9, D&C 75:27, D&C 6:5, D&C 12:5, D&C 14:5, D&C 11:5).  We need to do our part to show God we care about obtaining truth.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, God chastises Oliver Cowdery: "Behold you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.  But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right..." (D&C 9:7-8).  We shouldn't be afraid of new knowledge from God and we shouldn't be afraid to ask for it, "for God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).  Humbly, we should always be learning, always be studying, always be acquiring new knowledge and educating ourselves.  And when something doesn't fit, we don't need to throw it away.

I have a shelf in my mind labeled "Don't have all the answers yet" where I put things that don't quite jive at the moment. As the years go by I'm able to take things on and off the shelf as I learn and grow, having faith that someday the shelf will be empty.  In a beautiful sermon entitled "What is Truth," Elder Uchtdorf addresses this topic more succinctly then I ever could.  After stating our obligation to seek after truth, he concludes with: "My young friends, as you accept the responsibility to seek after truth with an open mind and a humble heart, you will become more tolerant of others, more open to listen, more prepared to understand, more inclined to build up instead of tearing down, and more willing to go where the Lord wants you to go."

We need to obey whether or not it is something of great consequence.  From Namaan's faithful servant we are often reminded: "if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it?" (2 Kings 5:13).  Sometimes we forget that when the Lord asks us to "lose (our) life for (his) sake" it is both the willingness to lay down our life and die for His cause, but also to give up the daily agenda of day-to-day living for God and follow whatever plan He has for us.  Obedience is a two-edged sword.  

3) Prayer.  Prayer is at worst a grocery list of needs from us to God and at best a conversation where we speak and then listen and then obey. The Bible Dictionary states prayer as such: "Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them."  If we can trust that God loves us (John 3:16, 1 Nephi 11:17) then we can trust that whatever He commands us to do will be for our ultimate benefit and happiness.  Mormon missionaries the world over share time and time again "Moroni's promise" in the Book of Mormon, that if we ask with a "sincere heart" and with "real intent" (meaning we will follow through with the answer we are given) that we may know "the truth of all things"(Moroni 10:3-5).  When we ask a specific question to God we can receive specific answers.  Again to Oliver Cowdery, the Lord continues: "...and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.  But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong..." (D&C 9:8-9).  In the preceding revelation, the Lord coaxes Oliver: "Yeah, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost" (D&C 8:2-3).  Mind and soul, head and heart.  To quote Elder Holland on these verses: "God will teach us in a reasonable way and in a revelatory way—mind and heart combined—by the Holy Ghost."  We just need to pray, and ask, and listen, and obey...and then pay attention to the results.

4) Examining "the Fruits."  I think this is the most important one but it can be the hardest to pin down.  Every act as a before and after: an intention and a consequence.  Intentions are never a good indicator of the fruits of something or someone.  Villains always see themselves in the right—even Hitler thought he was doing the world a favor.  Of course this is why I think it doesn't hurt to trust that people have good intentions...but obviously not everything everyone does is right or true.  In the New Testament and Book of Mormon, Jesus uses the phrase "by their fruits ye shall know them" when warning His followers of false prophets (Matthew 7:20, 3 Nephi 14:20).  But I think this can be applied when examining any possible falsehood in our lives.  It can be complicated though—things that are bad for us often have immediate positive results or fruits.  People wouldn't do drugs or drink alcohol or do a number of other things if it didn't have a close-range positive effect.  It requires patience and stepping back and sometimes withholding judgment until we can truly see the fruits.  Sometimes we don't have time to evaluate all the consequences of a particular action, which is why the Lord occasionally requires us to move forward with faith.  And since we have the Atonement of Jesus Christ we can move forward on that faith, knowing that if we misjudged or faltered that His sacrifice can erase our sin, His pain can allow our joy (Isaiah 1:18, Alma 7:11).  If we look at long term positive fruits we can often easily and quickly recognize the truth of any situation.

Mormons don't have the corner on truth—we just claim to have access to a continuation of it through a Prophet of God.  This is the same claim Christians have when Christ restored his Church by calling twelve apostles and a Prophet (Peter) and Jews claim it through God restoring his Church through Moses.  God has been doing this business of getting His truth out for a long time.  So why doesn't He just give it to us all at once?  I think because He wants us to remain humble and seeking and asking and knocking.  If we knew everything all at once, we would neither appreciate or cherish or cultivate the knowledge He has already given us.  In the parable of the talents, it didn't matter the amount of talents he gave to each servant, he just cared about the increase.  To the servant who hid away the talent, citing fear, the Master rebukes "thou art a wicked and slothful servant" (Matthew 25:26).  God wants us to continue to search and ask and seek after new knowledge!

What if we all decided to find truth instead of deciding or figuring out who is right and who is wrong.  What if we were all truth-seekers instead of attempted truth definers?  What if we collected or compiled this truth—what would it say?  What would be in it?  Is that what social media already is?  If we all sought after truth in our respective disciplines (with that goal in mind) would God exponentially grace us with His wisdom from the Heavens?  I suppose as we did this there would be plenty of truths that don't quite fit, but as I have sought to know God's truth for myself so much of it seems paradoxical from my own earthly perspective.  To quote Forrest Gump at the end of that great movie (which I think is largely about redemption) when speaking to his sweetheart after her death:

"Jennie...I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan...I don't know if we each have a destiny or if were all just floatin' around accidental like on a breeze...but I, I think...maybe it's both.  Maybe both is happening at the same time."

I have faith that there will be a time and a place when we will all know all the answers to all the questions, but I also have faith that it can be sooner then we think, if we give it a try.