Zelophehad’s Daughters

Using Human Reason to Think About God

Posted by Lynnette

A question which often arises in theological discussion is that of whether we mere mortals are in any position to make sense of these kinds of topics in the first place. One common argument is that the things of God are incomprehensible to mortal understanding, and we shouldn’t expect to understand them with our finite brains. If particular religious teachings appear nonsensical or even morally problematic, then, this is merely due to the limits of human reason.

In the history of Christianity, this approach has been advocated by a number of illustrious thinkers: Augustine and Luther, for example, both appeal to it to explain why God would predestine some to salvation, but not others. I’ve heard contemporary evangelicals make a similar argument to explain the seeming injustice in God damning those who live morally exemplary lives but fail to properly confess Christ. Such an appeal has also been at times used to account for the challenges of understanding traditional teachings about the nature of the Trinity.

I mention the above examples because they are instances in which Latter-day Saints tend to find this approach unpersuasive. However, the “we can’t understand God’s ways” argument comes up in LDS contexts as well; I’ve often seen it as a response to the apparent contradictions between hierarchy and egalitarianism in our current teachings on gender, for example, and it seems to almost inevitably pop up in any extended discussion on suffering. If nothing else, I think we should be consistent; I don’t think we can fairly use reason to critique the beliefs of other faiths, and then turn around and propose that our own doctrines should be immune to such questioning.

But going further, I think a case can be made that an LDS worldview should be one that takes reason quite seriously. I’m not arguing for some kind of “reason alone” approach; I have no problem with the proposition that human reason and understanding are limited, and we won’t get very far in religious matters if we rely on them exclusively. I think it’s important in theological discussion to remember that we’re not in a position to understand fully, that we can’t escape the ambiguity of mortality, that in our current state we only see through a glass, darkly. However, I also see reason as having a legitimate and even vital role to play the realm of faith, and I think we do people a disservice when we frame the two as if they were inherently opposed, and suggest that it is necessary to choose either one or the other.

I actually think that Mormons in particular have a number of reasons to be hesitant about appealing too quickly to the incomprehensibility of God and the limits of human understanding to explain away difficult questions. Latter-day Saints posit an extraordinarily high anthropology. Humans, we claim, are literally related to God. I think this doctrine strongly challenges any notion that God’s ways are so foreign to us that we have virtually no hope of comprehending them, or that human reason is next to useless in the spiritual realm. If we are in some fundamental sense like God, if there is some kind of basic continuity there, we have real reason to be optimistic (even if cautiously so) about the human capability to comprehend and discern truth. In other words, when it comes to making judgments about religious matters, we are not creatures wholly other than God, without a leg to stand on.

I am particularly uneasy with any argument that we should suspend our own moral judgment in evaluating religious teachings and practices (the “it might seem wrong to you to do x, but you’re not in a position to judge God” argument). For one thing, LDS teachings indicate that all people are given the light of Christ, which enables them to distinguish right from wrong. This means, I believe, that as fallible as my or your moral sense may be, no matter how much it might be culturally shaped, there is nonetheless something of divinity in it, and it is worth listening to.

Additionally, if God’s morality is completely foreign to us, and he might (for example) arbitrarily decide to damn some while saving others—and in those situations we are unable to make any kind of moral judgments about that behavior because his ways are so far above ours—quite honestly, I am not sure why we would want to have anything to do with such a being. Of course God sees an infinitely greater picture and has a much fuller understanding of things than I do, but if I am to have any kind of meaningful relationship with him, I need his sense of “good” to have at least some connection to my sense of “good”—or else the goodness of God means no more to me than would the “zblgq-ness” of God (or some other nonsensical term).

I find support for this in the Book of Mormon. Take Mormon’s epistle to Moroni on infant baptism, where Mormon draws on both revelation and reason to explain his views on the subject. He first reports that Christ has told him that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them.” (Moroni 8:8) But he then goes on to make a rational argument against the practice. He explains that children do not need baptism, because baptism is for the remission of sins. He then makes this rather striking comment:

But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism! (Moroni 8:13, italics mine)

If the doctrine that unbaptized infants will perish were true, he is arguing, then God would be partial and changeable—and that is unacceptable. In other words, he making a judgment about a particular religious teaching and asserting that it does not square with the nature of God. Interestingly, he does not propose that whatever God does is good no matter how it appears to us, and if it doesn’t appear good that is simply due to our own limitations. He actually seems to assume quite the opposite, as he suggests that if God acted in certain ways, God would in fact not be good. I see a precedent here for the idea that if religious doctrines or practices lead us to an understanding of a God who acts unjustly, it is legitimate to question them.

Something similar, I think, can be found in Alma’s attempt to explicate the relationship between justice and mercy. In Alma 42, he observes several times that if the works of justice are not fulfilled, then God would cease to be God. Again, I find it interesting that he responds to Corianton’s concern about the injustice of punishing sinners not by appealing to the incomprehensibility of God, but by putting forth a complex argument about the nature of justice. Like Mormon, he seems to assume that humans can understand and evaluate religious teachings (and presumably reject any which would lead to a God who ceased to be God).

I do think this has to be kept in tension with passages like the warning in 2 Nephi 9 about those who are learned and therefore think they are wise, or Paul’s observation in 1 Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” But I still hold that human reasoning, particularly human moral reasoning, has something legitimate to offer even in matters pertaining to the spiritual or divine realm. And if it is indeed heretical or even blasphemous to make such an assertion, it seems to me a very Mormon sort of heresy.

12 Responses to “Using Human Reason to Think About God”

  1. 1.

    How do you think this relates to the concept of levels of knowledge, that things are built line upon line or precept on precept?

    I have experienced things I understood in a concrete, literalistic way have been opened to my eyes to have expanded meaning as my knowledge increased. I can’t help but wonder if many of our understandings here and now are just God giving us what we can handle, along the path to knowing and understanding him, with a lot of the greater truths kept in reserve. Joseph Smith seemed to operate this way.

  2. 2.

    Nice post, Lynnette. In my view, the biggest limitation on human ability to reason about God is the state of the evidence. We lack shared evidence of any kind about God’s nature or even existence. Furthermore, the private evidence that we have differs substantially from individual to individual, and typically seems to correspond closely to people’s predilections. Logic and analytic philosophy are techniques that work very poorly indeed when there are few or no established facts from which to reason.

    All that said, I think a very different kind of defense of human attempts to reason about God can be made. Even if, as may be likely, our reasoning is quite substantially unlikely to arrive at full or accurate conclusions, it may be worthwhile if the process of reasoning produces valuable changes in the reasoner. Exploring the strengths, limitations, and general value — from our current perspective — of ideas about God is a way of addressing, and refining, our own ideas about goodness, the way the world ought to be, and the way we ought to interact with others. And thinking seriously about these questions has to (I hope) lead to living a better life.

    Pure, distilled truth about God that can’t be reasoned about or understood couldn’t really change who we are or how we live. How could it? If we can’t understand it, we can’t internalize it or make it part of our thought process. So, I guess, it would probably just bounce right off of us. By contrast, error-laden, incomplete, and human efforts to understand God and divine things at least has the potential to change who we are. So, arguably, our efforts at finding truth are more valuable than actual, incomprehensible truth would be.

  3. 3.

    Interesting post Lynnette. I often wonder at the juxtaposition of the inexpressibility topos that the Patristic Fathers posit about God (often as Trinity) with the portrayal of God as a character (sometimes symbolically, sometimes quite anthropomorphically) in the poetry of late antiquity and the medieval period. The literary portrayals of God are not governed by formal logic; yet, the imaginative reasoning of the narratives project possibilities and insights about God’s nature.

    I personally find narratives more appealing than logic, and so I look to the scripture stories for examples of how God interacts with His children in my own search to understand His nature and my relationship with Him.

  4. 4.

    Excellent, Lynnette.

    Although I don’t know very much about how other Christians speak about their faith, I’ve had the thought before that we talk about ours surprisingly often in terms of secular reasoning. Alma 5 and Moroni 10 invite us to experiment, and to examine evidence. The Book of Mormon is full of phrases like “therefore, it must needs be . . .” and “…and thus we see…” which attempt to appeal to reason by constructing arguments and drawing conclusions. So far, we haven’t produced anything like the Jesuits have, but give us time. :-)

    I am also inclined to believe that whatever it is that God might do differently from us does not derive from his ability to do away with reason, but instead from his better access to data.

  5. 5.

    Thanks for an insightful post, Lynnette.
    I hope you don’t mind if I borrow heavily from it next time I’m asked to speak in Sacrament meeting ;)
    I find myself resorting to the incomprehensible God defense when I get frustrated with the role of women in the church. But, it looks like you’re saying that just isn’t a good enough answer.
    Also, I really liked your examples from the Book of Mormon.
    I taught Primary Sharing Time today about the plan of salvation. It seems that God does want us to understand what is going on. Sometimes, though, I get caught up in smaller details and forget how big the picture really is.
    Since only one child in our junior primary can read, I used pictures and costumes to help them understand (and lemon sandwich cookies, don’t ask). It occurred to me during the lesson that God teaches us in the same way. He uses things that we’ll understand, and even though it’s far from complete (like Mark said about better access to data) it’s good enough to get us through for a while.
    At least that’s my hope.

  6. 6.

    Yet another brilliant post by Lynnette that leaves me with nothing to contribute, except to say thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    This is a nice summation of my theological distress:

    Of course God sees an infinitely greater picture and has a much fuller understanding of things than I do, but if I am to have any kind of meaningful relationship with him, I need his sense of “good” to have at least some connection to my sense of “good”—or else the goodness of God means no more to me than would the “zblgq-ness” of God (or some other nonsensical term).

  7. 7.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Doc, I think this fits well with the line-upon-line model. Because as I read it, that model suggests not only that our understanding is currently quite limited (which clearly it is!), but also that it has some kind of continuity with God’s–even though we’re at a much more primitive level, we’re headed in the same direction.

    RT, that’s a fascinating observation about the potential value of exploring ideas about God. And I really like your point that truly incomprehensible truths couldn’t contact us at all, and would therefore be meaningless for us. I also think an important thing to remember in theological discussion is that even though God might well be beyond our current comprehension, the ways in which we formulate doctrine are very much human. One of my Protestant professors actually makes this point about the Trinity–he argues that the “it’s a mystery” explanation is a cop-out, because the doctrine of the Trinity is a human way of describing God, which means it’s fair to subject it to the tests of human reason. God may well be a mystery and ultimate ineffable, but that doesn’t mean that doctrine should be.

    Fideline, thanks for mentioning narrative; I agree that they’re often a much more powerful way of conveying truth than abstract reasoning. As you say, narratives don’t simply engage the intellect, they also engage the imagination–and that gives them a transformative power that logical arguments rarely have, I think.

    Mark IV said,

    So far, we haven’t produced anything like the Jesuits have, but give us time.

    That’s an encouraging thought! And I like your point about how much of a role secular reasoning plays in the way we discuss our faith.

    Thanks, Jessawhy. (And you’re certainly welcome to steal anything here that you think is worth stealing!) Your primary teaching example is a great one; it’s always interesting to me to see how I have to re-conceptualize the gospel to explain it to kids. I wonder if God finds it as entertaining to do that for us. ;)

    Hi, ECS! Thanks for the kind words; it’s always nice to hear that I made sense to someone.

  8. 8.

    This is a fascinating post, Lynnette. One more reason why I think we have to count on our ideas about what’s good being at least similar to God’s ideas is that we’re hoping for a good afterlife. But if “good” to God means something completely arbitrary, like “burning in a lake of fire”, or perhaps “sitting and endlessly watching Seinfeld reruns” then did we really want to behave so as to get this “good” result?

    Mark, I really like your point:

    I am also inclined to believe that whatever it is that God might do differently from us does not derive from his ability to do away with reason, but instead from his better access to data.

    I think this sums it up perfectly. If God commands us to do something that we think is crazy or wrong, say if he commands Nephi to kill Laban, or if he lets the world be filled with evil acts, it’s not because he actually thinks that killing and evil acts are good where we misunderstand them and think they’re bad; he simply knows more than we do about which of his potential interventions to restore short-term good would cause more long-term harm.

  9. 9.

    I was reading C.S. Lewis the other day, and noticed that he moved back and forth on this issue. First, he’d lay things out nice and logically, showing how a led to b led to c, how it was really intuitive and made perfect sense, etc. Then he’d bump up against something illogical in the theology, and would suddenly say, well, if religion was always what I would come up with myself, it would be likely to be a manmade religion. These weird, illogical things prove it’s really from God, not people. So the logical and the illogical aspects of Christianity are all offered as evidence of its truth. I found this frustrating, though I love a lot of his writing.

    I like this post a lot, by the way. My sweet, faithful Grandma used to say, If you hear something at church that just doesn’t sit right, it’s probably because it’s not right.

  10. 10.

    Thank you for this post. It is 1 am and I am slightly delirious (disclaimer about the inevitable low caliber of this post) but I wanted to thank you for applying a consistent and fair standard to both other religions and your own. That is a rare trait, and immensely relieving to me.

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