(Possibly Nonsensical) Musings on Sense

The question of whether church teachings “make sense” (and to what extent it matters whether or not they do) has come up in a couple of places lately, and I’ve been mulling over my own views on the subject. I’ve always been a bit fascinated when I’ve heard people assert that they find the LDS church appealing because it makes so much more sense than any other religious system. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but my own experience has been rather different.

Sometimes when other church members find out that I study theology, I get the impression that they are imagining that I’m learning about a bunch of bizarre and clearly apostate doctrines which simply don’t hold up in comparison with the truths of the restored gospel. But if that were in fact my perspective on things, I’m not sure why I would even bother with this field. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from seriously engaging the theology of other traditions; my academic work has pushed me to think about issues in new ways, raised provocative questions, suggested alternate possibilities. I do have moments when I’m acutely conscious of just how Mormon is the lens through which I see the world, when having considered other options I still prefer the LDS theological angle– but I have to also admit that I sometimes find the arguments of other Christians to be more compelling than ours. It’s a mixed bag. They have problems and contradictions and things that are hard to explain, and so do we. They have some really cool stuff, and so do we.

And yet I remain a Mormon (albeit a rather conflicted and confused one). I’m not sure I can entirely unpack the reasons for that, but I can say it’s not because I think the LDS approach clearly makes more sense than that of anyone else. Over the years, in fact, I’ve become a lot more skeptical about a variety of fairly basic LDS teachings. I think that what has nonetheless kept me at least semi-active is my profound belief that I’ve authentically encountered God in the context of the church.

That, however, leaves me with the question: if my commitment (such as it is) is primarily based on experiential knowledge, does it really matter if things don’t make sense? There are actually a large number of dilemmas about which I can say okay, this is an intellectually interesting problem, but it’s not going to shake my faith if I can’t figure it out. However, I find that there are some crucial issues which have more serious consequences. Joseph Smith famously said in the Lectures on Faith that we are unable to exercise faith in God without a correct understanding of his attributes. For me, the heart of the matter is the simple question: can I trust God? And when I encounter problems (such as evidence which suggests that God values women less, or that church leaders have felt divinely authorized to lie) which have the potential to erode that trust, I don’t know that I can simply “have faith” and put those questions on the shelf, as such problems threaten to bring the entire shelf crashing down.

Does any of this make sense? 😉


  1. does it really matter if things don’t make sense? There are actually a large number of dilemmas about which I can say okay, this is an intellectually interesting problem, but

    I had to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair in order to grade essays written about it.

    One thing that struck me about the book was the way the guy had driven himself crazy trying to make sense out of things when he did not have all the parts he needed to make that work.

    If we accept the premise that this world is only a small part of the whole, with a God who dwells outside of time, then we accept, at some level, that we can’t get all the parts of the puzzle in this life.

    I think the core of that is that much of the world will not make sense outside of the context that God loves us and will see us through.

  2. Things make sense when you can see how your experience fits within the theoretical framework; when you can’t see that, things don’t make sense.

    Most of the time, when people say the church makes sense to them, I don’t think they mean the LDS theoretical framework is more logic-based or more internally consistent than other religions’ frameworks. Few have done a rigorous comparison. I think they mean that they can more easily see how their personal experiences with God are accounted for in LDS terms than in other religions’ terms.

    I’ve heard that Calvinism is supposedly the most internally consistent religious paradigm there is. If you’re predestined, you’ll be saved; if you’re not you won’t. If you find yourself unsaved, it means you weren’t predestined; if you find yourself saved, it means you were predestined. That’s very consistent and logical as far as it goes. And yet Calvinism doesn’t make sense to me (or to a lot of people) because a God who treats people so arbitrarily and unequally is not the kind of God I have experienced.

  3. Does any of this make sense? 😉

    Yeah, sort of.

    When we first got married, my wife said something that seemed to be so clearly wrong that I knew, absolutely knew, that she was lying to me. I remember watching her face closely as she spoke, waiting for her to give herself away. It took me a while to realize that she was just giving voice to what she thought, and now I am ashamed of myself for thinking of her as a liar. But Mars and Venus doesn’t even begin to explain it. She was in a completely different universe.

    Lynnette, I’m not sure how to even address the idea that God values women less. I’m male, consequently I’ll never be able to experience exactly what you are experiencing. But I hope it’s not surprising to you if I say that lots of men think they are second class citizens in church. This has been discussed on M* in the “Undeserved Adulation” and “Single Men on Trial” threads. If we took a poll in the average ward and asked the question, “Are women more spiritual and therefore better than men?” I have very little doubt greater than 60% of both men and women would respond with a yes. We could argue that this is just the other side of the same coin, patronizing women to make up for the inequality, but that doesn’t change the fact that lots of women think and act as if they are better, and lots of men think and act as if they are inferior. Just this week in the bloggernacle I noticed several instances where women comment on the overall crappiness of men in general, and nobody even bothers to argue.

    I guess what I am saying is that there is a lot that doesn’t make sense to me, either. But, ultimately, we have to make choices, and choices have real consequences. The church makes a lot of sense to me if I approach it as a vehicle which helps me learn how to love and serve.

  4. Stephen, your comments reminded me of an analogy I recently read comparing our existence to a small island. We use the light of reason to explore the details of the island (which is an important and worthwhile enterprise), but we’re surround all the while by a vast sea of infinity. I do think it’s important to keep some perspective on this.

    Beijing, that’s a very helpful clarification about what people might be thinking when they assert that the gospel “makes the most sense.” Thank you.

    Mark, I think you’re raising a very important point about the role of men in the church. My off- the-cuff thought is that while women are institutionally devalued, men are perhaps more likely to be rhetorically devalued. I suspect that the latter is at least partially (as you suggest) a result of the former, but I appreciate the reminder that this dynamic can cut both ways.

    I also liked your story about your wife. I’ve had similar encounters, in which I simply couldn’t believe that other people really couldn’t see something that seemed so overwhelmingly obvious to me. It’s probably a good idea to prick the bubble of my own narcissism now and then, to keep in mind my own limitations– especially when I slip into thinking I have something “figured out.”. 😉

    I think where I get frustrated is when I go to church and hear that the gospel means that we do in fact have the complete map to reality, all the answers, etc. It bothers me to hear people of other faiths condescendingly described as those who lack the plain and simple truths which we possess. I’ve always loved Paul’s comment to the Corinthians that we “see through a glass, darkly;” I don’t see that Mormons constitute an exception to this.

    I’ve been thinking about William James, and his suggestion that if you believe life is worth living, your belief will create the fact. Also about Alma 32, and the idea that you begin by “experimenting upon the word.” I’ve found that I can begin with the premise that God is unjust, and a lot of things actually fit well into that paradigm– but not everything. I can also begin with the premise that God is good, and encounter the same situation. As Kaimi recently posted on T&S, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to avoid dissonance. Which makes me think there might be something to be said for the pragmatist position that you evaluate a belief by its consequences. On the other hand, would it be better to be at peace believing something that turned out to be false, or to be unhappy but with an accurate belief? (a question discussed recently on an interesting thread at DMI). I think my own view (or at least hope) is that the possibility that knowledge and happiness inherently contradict each other goes against as a basic premise of Christianity: that reality is ultimately benign.

    Well, I’m kind of rambling. But thanks for your thoughts, everyone.

  5. You raise such fascinating issues that I hesitate to hijack the thread :), but I just wanted to agree with Mark that we need to do a much better job of sticking up for our men. It disgusts me in RS when people make claims about how much closer to the spirit women are than men, how much more charitable, so we have to be tolerant of the poor males who need all these extra perks–all in this thoroughly patronizing tone. There’s no reason to tolerate this kind of baloney. Unrighteous behavior should be criticized regardless of who is committing it. But I see no reason to pronounce judgment on which sex is more righteuos and then make sweeping generalizations accordingly. I personally don’t think it’s a satisfactory solution to either sex to give men the lion’s share of institutional authority and then turn around and demean them by saying, “Ha ha ha! The only reason you have it is because you need it! We women are better than that!” It doesn’t even make sense! Ideally, I think feminism should improve the lot of men as much as that of women.

    (The complement to this is that we need to stop talking to women as though we females are above temptation–“You sweet sisters just can’t imagine the kinds of temptations that the male brain faces,” or “*you would never consider doing such a thing.” What a joke! We’re all human, we’re all tempted, and we’re all accountable to behave righteously.)

  6. I was intrigued to read this site because the incomparable A.A. Melyngoch is one of the authors. I’ve read a couple of things here now, because you women are often thought-provoking and at the least interesting authors.

    I think I’ll keep some of my more heathen-like comments to myself, but consider yourselves forwarned that you’ve got another reader and I’ll likely comment every now and again.

  7. it seems to me that the whole idea of religion and the gospel would be defeated if any religion just made sense. i’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the role of faith in being a Mormon. i find that very often–more often than i had thought–Mormons are engaged in trying to dispell the need for faith. for instance, we try to reduce multiple rather contradictory accounts Joseph Smith gave of the first vision into a single account that brings perfectly clear truth. we try to prove the existence of God. just to name a few I’ve encountered recently.

    I think that all misses the point. i think that we aren’t supposed to be able to make it all make sense. i think that while some of it can make sense–and often in the form of making sense of our experience, rather than making rational sense–much of it won’t and we are expected to combine rationality with faith based on experience in our acceptance of God and his teachings.

    i think the situation with women in the church is a prime example of this. as kiskilili pointed out, often the positions Mormons take on sex and gender issues are so illogical that they’re almost laughable. or they miss blatantly obvious problems (like the fact that priesthood is not the equivalent of motherhood; fatherhood is the equivalent of motherhood). i hate to say this cause it sounds like i’m arguing for simply accepting the situation, but i’ll say it anyway. at the end of the day, i think the challenge is that we have to simply take on faith that God is a God of justice and mercy and that the way things are right now is just the way things are right now. that we have to accept the gender inequities on faith that they are temporary and will change. that does not mean i advocate being a good little mormon woman who accepts her fate and never does anything more than the role prescribed for her. anyone who knew me would laugh at that idea. i’m all for speaking up and shaking preconceptions about gender and for exercising my right and obligation to make of myself the very post person i can be. but i see little reason for jettisoning the church if i have had experience with it that helps me understand how to make myself that better person.

    with that, i’ll end. having little idea if it al made sense. 🙂

  8. I agree with you, amelia. I often make a similar point about the Book of Mormon. I see my dad super-intrigued by all the archaeologists who are trying to figure out the location in Central/South America of the Lamanites and Nephites, etc. While I don’t think this is a bad pursuit, and can be very enlightening and faith-building for some, I think that the unresolved nature about the debates on the BoM are that way for a purpose.

    God doesn’t want people to believe in the truth of the book because we can identify the ancient society that was the equivalent of the Nephites/Lamanites. God wants us to believe in the truth of the book because we use its principles in our own life, and that helps us to draw closer to him. So, I think that because God wants us to exercises things like faith, hope, and trust, things are often not going to make rational sense. If they did make a lot of rational sense, it would be much easier to exhibit faith, hope, and trust, and I don’t think developing those traits and qualities is supposed to be an easy process.

  9. I find this discussion fascinating.

    Daniel Kahneman is an economist who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 2002. If I understand his work correctly, he has demonstrated that human are not rational actors, and that often we make decisions which are grounded in bias, irrationality, or emotionalism. This holds true, even when we think we are being rational.

    It is humbling, but not troubling, for me realize that some of my favorite parts of Mormonism rest on what might be a shaky foundation.

  10. Hmm . . . the top of my last comment disappeared into cyberspace, but Kiskilili, no worries about threadjacking; it’s an interesting issue! And I definitely agree that feminism (at least my understanding of it) should improve things for both sexes.

    Mark, I’ve encountered that idea as well, that the rational reasons we might give to explain our actions actually come after the fact, rather than being their basis. It does put kind of a different spin on this whole faith/reason thing.

  11. Jessica, I’m glad you dropped by, even in all of your heathenness (is that a word? 😉

    Amelia, and S, thanks for your thoughts; I think you’ve both made some very good points. That’s such a fascinating observation about the tendency to try to dispel the need for faith. Something that Eve once pointed out to me is that the gospel isn’t set up so that everyone is asked to have faith– except for a few people who are highly educated in Near Eastern Studies or theology or whatever, who get to rely on reason instead. All of us have to deal with living in a situation in which we can’t make sense of anything, or see the whole picture.

    I’ve often wondered why belief is a commandment, why something like faith would be considered a virtue (when in some ways it seems so dangerous . . . because what if you put faith in a system that leads to you drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, you know?) Though I wonder how much my views on this are tainted by living in contemporary American culture, in which survival requires you to exercise a lot of skepticism (no, that envelope you just got in the mail claiming that you’ve won a lottery you never even entered shouldn’t be trusted– and using that brand of toothpaste you just saw on TV probably isn’t going to make you young, beautiful, and surrounded by smiling people).

    And yet there does seem to be something powerful about making choices in a situation of ambiguity. Maybe because if you knew with certainty that “choosing the right” would ultimately lead to good things for you, it would be more difficult to make that choice in a way that is morally meaningful? I’m maybe not explaining this very well, but I see something very profound about choosing to love, for example, when you don’t know for sure if it will work out, when the possibility is very real that it will end badly and you’ll get hurt– and yet you opt for it anyway.

  12. Lynette–

    You wrote: “I see something very profound about choosing to love, for example, when you don’t know for sure if it will work out, when the possibility is very real that it will end badly and you’ll get hurt– and yet you opt for it anyway.”

    that is precisely what I wanted to communicate (and did a rather ham-handed job of). I have found myself recently getting angry at God because he hasn’t given me what I thought he had told me he would give me–not just what I wanted, but what I thought I had a right to expect. But even more recently I have been thinking about my reaction and I realize that I have failed to have faith in God in the way that I have faith in other people. I’m very trusting of people. Not that I’m easily duped. But I believe people are good. I don’t hold on to grudges. I let go of offenses very quickly. It’s just kind of how I operate. I trust that when someone does something that hurts me, it’s not usually intended and that they usually have my best interest in mind. But somehow with God I haven’t quite managed that much charity. and I think that my problem has been that I expected God to follow through in the way that makes sense to me, rather than in his own way. and when he didn’t, i was mad at him. So now I’m working on being charitable to God. on accepting him as I do other people–that he is good and loving and doesn’t mean to hurt me. I’m trying to love him not for what I think he can do for me, but just because it is good to love him eve nif doing so brings the very real possibility of being hurt and finding myself not able to wrap my mind around apparent contradictions he gives.

  13. Lynnette, I agree that’s a very powerful thing.

    Mark, I don’t necessarily think that making decisions based on emotion rather than reason makes for a “shaky foundation.” Of course, I think reason and skepticism are good and important, but I think emotion and bias get criticized and blamed for way too much (or ignored too much).

  14. Lynnette, going back to your island analogy, I don’t know that our church necessarily makes “more sense” than others, but I might say that we have “doctrinally mapped” a larger area of theological land than many of our Christian counterparts.

    The theologians will surely correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that we have many more concrete beliefs about, say, the afterlife than do other Judeo-Christian religions. We may all believe in a life after death, but Mormons add multiple kingdoms, eternal marriage, eternal families, eternal corporeality, etc. to the mix.

    So we hear a lot of stories about converts who always wondered about X or Y, and their pastor/priest/minister was unable to give them an adequate explanation, but then the missionaries explained what happens to people who never hear the Gospel or babies who die unbaptized in infancy or whatever. And it’s easy to come away thinking that our church “makes so much more sense” than any other church because we can answer these questions. But the fact that there are devout Mormons who still have theological questions implies to me that we don’t have a perfectly logical theology, just that we’ve pushed the boundary beyond which “there be dragons” out somewhat further.

    And I suppose that there are many people who are content to live (and wonder) well within the boundaries of our known theology, but that doesn’t mean that such boundaries don’t exist, nor that one is necessarily a heathen for wondering about what lies beyond.

    (I almost wonder if I might invoke Gödel and say that we can’t possibly understand all of the questions posed by our theology within that same theology. Just as it takes an expanded set of doctrines to answer the questions of a lesser set, we might need a larger doctrinal framework in order to fully address the questions of our own.)

  15. Faith has always been a mystery to me. Why do we need to learn to just have faith? It just seems strange to believe in irrational things just because we are having faith. If we see problems in the church then maybe it is because there are problems and not because God makes it irrational and problematic just so we can exercise faith.

    And why are many of us even having to ask these questions and to have faith in the first place. I myself have been a member all of my life, seminary, mission, temple marriage, callings and very active. I have prayed a million time to know the BofM is true and that the church is true. I have followed the outline in Mor. 10:3-5 and Alma 32(seed planting). But I have not received an answer. I am always told just ot have faith. I have had faith for over 35 years. How long do I just have faith in things that don’t make sense? I just can not believe that we need to believe in irrational things or that God would ask us too. He is said to be a God of true so why would he mislead us. I have heard some say that God tries to trick us and make things unclear so we will just have to follow with faith. For example: dinosaur bones appear old to make us have faith in a recent creation. I think that we need to put our faith in things that we know are worthy of faith. If things appears wishy washy be skeptical and question. Find the answers the best that you can. Don’t just believe for the sake of faith.

  16. Amelia, I actually hadn’t thought of my comment about choosing to love in the face of ambiguity as being applicable to our relationship to God– but I read your post and thought, of course, that’s such a good description of something which I struggle with! I also find that it’s more difficult to have trust in that relationship– when I mess up, for example, I have a fair amount of confidence that my friends will forgive me, but sometimes I get paralyzed in fear that I’ve crossed the line and God will reject me. (It does seem a bit backward, in that it’s supposed to be God who is perfectly loving, and humans who are fallible. But nonetheless, I find myself thinking that way.) I relate a lot to what you said about expecting God to follow through in your way, and then getting disappointed; I’ve had that experience as well. So I really like your thought about having charity for God. Thanks so much for your comments; they just “clicked” for me.

    S, that’s such an interesting point about reason being overvalued and emotion being undervalued. I had a conversation today in which I said something the lines of, “I know that if I were being rational about this, I wouldn’t be angry,” and the other person asked, “what if the rational thing in this situation actually were to be angry?” It made me realize that not only do I seem to privilege reason, I also have this idea that emotion and reason somehow inherently contradict each other, and that might not always be accurate.

    Katya, thanks for your thoughts; I enjoy the image you paint of theological lands which we are charting with our doctrines. And I would agree that there are various areas in which we do have more detailed doctrine, so I can see how the “the church makes the most sense” comments could grow out of that.

    This is actually making me look a little harder at my assertion that I’m not sure the church makes more sense than any other religious tradition. I’m thinking that it might be a result of a lot of wrestling with basic theological problems like evil, or grace and freedom, which I don’t think that anyone, including us, has really come up with a clear, definitive answer for.

    In any case, I really like your idea that while we may have some stuff mapped, we can also venture out into “here be dragons” territory– that (if I’m understanding your final comment correctly), we might even need to do so if we’re ever to really make sense of what we have now.

    Japanguy, I’ve heard the “God created dinosaur bones to trick us” argument as well, and like you, found that completely silly. I do think that God has left a lot of things murky, but I have a hard time believing that God is being deliberately deceptive in some kind of odd test of faith. The lack of response to your prayers sounds very frustrating; I don’t know what to say except that I’m sorry, and that must be a difficult position to be in. I definitely share your commitment to questioning– I don’t see that as at all antithetical to faith. My view of faith is that it doesn’t have anything to do with turning off your brain; for me, it’s more about a kind of openness to the possibility that there is more out there than I can currently see.


Comments are closed.