Saturday, June 14, 2008

Truth, Sentimentality and Comfort Zones

“Truth is reason, truth eternal” Eliza R. Snow: “O’ My Father” (19th century Mormon hymn)

“Truth, the sum of existence”-- John Jaques: “O Say What Is Truth?” (19th century Mormon hymn)

“Truth is a knowledge of things are they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.”--Joseph Smith, (“The Doctrine & Covenants” 93:24)

“What has stood the test of time is not necessarily worthy of endurance. An error a thousand years old is still an error. An untruth repeated a thousand times in still an untruth.”— Apostle Richard L. Evans (from his 1940 collection of “Spoken Word“ sermonettes entitled “Unto The Hills” pp. 77)

We can feel sentimental only about the things that we know.

Recollections from childhood or youth; memories of family members, friends, teachers, co-workers, of holidays and vacations; past accomplishments; stories, ideas and rituals passed on to us by parents or authority figures; even ancient taboos that have been unquestioningly accept by everyone we know—these are the things which seem to define us as individuals, which set boundaries for acceptable behavior, which endow our existence with order and meaning, and which stir our emotions. Sentimentality can give the familiar, the known and the traditional an aura of ultimate and transcendent truth.

On the other hand, the human response to the unknown is caution—even fear, or dread.

The unknown, the unfamiliar may be initially perceived as a threat. Certainly the unknown can threaten whatever comfort zone we now inhabit. How can we feel comfortable and secure when we don’t understand the nature of that which confronts us? That which challenges traditions, which undermines the stories passed on to us; which threatens to supplant familiar rituals, to overturn long-accepted authorities and to erase ancient taboos—it is so easy to condemn such a thing as wrong, as evil, as an enemy to the truth.

But things that are unknown and unfamiliar exist just as surely as do those things that are known and the familiar. The unknown has an existence and a nature regardless of our awareness of it. Only by remaining completely ignorant of something can we sustain the illusion that it is completely wrong, completely evil and untrue.

Exposure to what was previously unknown—exposure in any degree whatsoever—brings, to some degree, understanding. Ignorance begins to recede, and our minds—which will, on some level, always involuntarily follow the evidence presented to them—will begin to process the information. We may deny the reality of the evidence. In our minds we may create little compartments in which we attempt to hide away these new facts—usually in an attempt to preserve the lovely aura of ultimate and transcendent truth that sentimentality has endowed the things with which we are familiar.

But once we acquire any amount of knowledge concerning something that was previously unknown, the shimmer of past sentiment never shines quite as brightly as once it did.

Mythic Eden was a garden of eternal delights for Adam and Eve until they ate the fruit of Knowledge, and left the garden for the world beyond it gates. Were they to have returned to the garden after living in the outside world and experiencing what had previously been unknown, it is doubtful that they would have seen Eden as a paradise of endless pleasures or delights.

Exploring the unfamiliar and the unknown does that: it changes previous assumptions, makes familiar stories and conclusions seem simplistic; it opens our eyes to the contradictions and to the opposition that is present every where in the universe.

“In all the changing picture, it is good to keep in mind that while there is nothing so constant a change, neither is there anything so changeless as truth.” (Richard L. Evans)

For this very reason—the opening of our eyes to the true nature of reality—venturing forward out of our comfort zones is essential not just to our emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth but to over very survival on earth.

“Perhaps one of the things we should keep uppermost in mind as we live from day to day is the fact that there is little to be gained by fighting anything that is incontrovertible. There is nothing to be gained by fighting against the laws of nature, but there is much to be gained by recognizing them and using them. There can be no possible benefit derived from fighting against truth, even though truth gives us inconvenience at times; but there is much to be reaped from accepting and working within the laws of truth.” (Richard L. Evans)

There were cultures that firmly believed a human sacrifice to the gods would cause crops to grow, the rain to fall or the sun to shine, cure disease or plague, or ensure victory in an upcoming battle against an enemy. These beliefs held ultimate authority over the minds of such people, evoking in them all the sentiment, the powerful emotions, and the sense of comfort and security that our most cherished beliefs and traditions evoke in us.

But such emotions, such a sense of security did not change the fact that taking a human life on the altar of a god had no direct cause and effect on the weather, on fertility, on the natural course of disease, or on the movement of stars and planets. The emotions, sentiments and sense of security that such sacrifices inspired in those cultures could only be sustained as long as those cultures remained ignorant of natural law; as long as they stayed within the comfort zone created by traditions and taboos. Once they were exposed to the previously unknown and unfamiliar, what had been seen as transcendently true had to be questioned, reexamined and put in a new context that robbed it of its presumed ultimate authority.

It is no wonder that the Christian world interprets the myth of Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit of Knowledge as a sin—as the Original Sin from which all misery descends. Knowledge endows us with a sense of our own nakedness before the natural elements, of our mortality and physical limitations, of the fragility of life on earth. The continuing revelation of truth more fully opens our eyes to the necessity of thinking for ourselves, of making choices and taking responsibility for those choices. What evaporates in this eternal drama of continuing revelation is the past illusion that we knew all we needed to know; that the meaning of existence was easy to grasp if we would accept as the final revelation of truth only those things that were already known.

But something eternally precious is gained with the passing such illusions: human progress; the advance of civilization; the ascendancy of a new vision in which human life itself becomes the highest value.

“…when truth comes into conflict with a man’s convenience, or with his traditional beliefs, there are several ways he can act toward it. He may pretend that he is not aware of its existence, thereby deceiving no one but himself. He may attempt to discredit it by assailing its veracity. Or, perhaps at great cost, he may accept it for what it is and make it a part of his life. If he does, no matter what he pays for it, he has purchased wisely.” (Richard L. Evans)

Reform Mormon theology deviates from nearly every other religion in its definition of truth.

Most religions in general offer an ethereal, mystical—and misty, fuzzy—concept of truth. They often described the truth as something separate from the physical sphere and natural world; as something that is “spiritual”—meaning, immaterial and thus incomprehensible to rationalistic human thought.

In contrast, Mormon theology defines truth as knowledge of things as they were, of things as they are and of things as they are to come. Mormonism teaches that the human mind is capable of learning new truth eternally; it declares that the human race can “comprehend all things” that are revealed; that at some point in time humanity “will comprehend even God.” (See “Doctrine & Covenants” 121:28-31 and 88:49)

While other religions teach that there are different types of truth which might contradict one another, Mormonism teaches that “all truth can be circumscribed into one great whole.” (This is the symbolical meaning of the Compass—which is the central visual element in the symbol for Reform Mormonism.) Truth—being knowledge of existence—is true regardless of whether it is revealed through theological speculation, scientific research, or even through atheistic and secular search and discovery.

When all is said and done it is not faith, tradition, warm feelings or sentiments that save us—temporally or eternally; it is knowledge. Reform Mormonism embraces—fully, and without apology or equivocation—that “knowledge is what saves a man.” (Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse.”)

The quest for truth is the quest for knowledge. The quest for truth is moving forward into the unknown and the unfamiliar. We humans are by nature rational beings. Our quest for truth does not take us out of the world to some imagined immaterial spiritual realm. Rather the quest for truth calls us to live in the world and to embrace life on earth—and in the cosmos beyond--more fully. To answer this call is to embrace our humanity—and ultimately divinity itself.

“Through the devious ways of life the seekers are the finders; the searchers are they who are rewarded by discovery; and, in the pursuit of all truth, all men approach nearer unto a knowledge and understanding of God. (Richard L. Evans)

John Jaques, the 19th century Mormon writer, celebrated this concept of truth in one of his best known hymns:

“Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
'Tis an aim for the noblest desire…
Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o'er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.