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.
- 25 January 2008