Reason and Truth Rattling Around My Brain

Għallis Tower in Malta. Copyright H.J.Moyes ( Sept 2005.
Għallis Tower in Malta. Copyright H.J.Moyes ( Sept 2005.

The concluding talk of this Friday afternoon session was (then) Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s, “Watchman, Warn the Wicked,” and it was a powerful talk that I think will resonate with a lot of issues that we’re facing today. But as I looked back on the passages that I’d highlighted from these talks, there was a quieter theme that tugged at my attention.

“We are to reason as intelligently as we are able,” said Elder Bruce R. McConkie in Upon Judea’s Plains. “We are to use every faculty and capacity with which we are endowed to proclaim the message of salvation and to make it intelligent to ourselves and to our Father’s other children.” He goes on, “But after you have reasoned and after you have analyzed, you have got to stand as a personal witness who knows what he is saying.”

I like this “yes, and” approach to the alleged reason/science vs. faith/religion conflict. “Yes, and…” is the cardinal rule of improvisational comedy.1 The idea is that responding to someone else’s suggestion with a no kills the performance. You can’t ever say no in improv. Instead, you accept what someone says and add your own contribution. In this way, the communal creation incorporates the individual perspectives of the players and the whole—if all goes well—is greater than the sum of the parts.

For me, this is an ideal approach to the apparent conflicts we will see as we seek to construct a worldview incorporated modern prophets, ancient scripture, and our own moral sense and reasoned positions. I believe that the truth towards which we’re striving is generally above any of the alternative views we see down here, and that has two major implications. First, we shouldn’t be too concerned with either/or selections between different interpretations or explanations of apparent contradictions. Second, we should keep the entire endeavor of human intellectual reason in its place: part of the story. Not the whole story. And thus, Elder McConkie’s call to “reason as intelligently as we are able” but then to seek out and then stake out “a personal witness” resonates with me very deeply.

I was also struck by some comments of Elder John H. Vandenberg in his talk The Agency of Man. He said that “When reason is joined with truth, there is convincing logic that sets up the path in our hearts that leads upward and onward to a nobler life,” and also that “Reason is only compatible with truth. Error and evil, no matter how one may try to reason with it, still remain error and evil leading to chaos.”

That last one is really stuck in my brain, rattling around like a mysterious broken piece inside an electronic device. It means something, but I’m not exactly sure what.

I’m generally skeptical of the Enlightenment’s worship of rationalism. Like Jonathan Haidt, I’m an intuitionist. In that, when it comes to how humans actually think and believe and behave, rationality is neither a good model nor a useful goal. Reason—by which I mean the application of the rules of logic—seems to be an essentially valueless and therefore amoral and empty approach. It is, in my view, just a tool. A tool that can be used for good or for ill.

But that’s not what Elder Vandenberg has in mind. His view is much more pro-reason. Maybe he and I are thinking of slightly different things. Maybe my suspicion of reason is, itself, an overcorrection to the modern world’s excesses.

The most important statements of these General Conference talks are the ones that are the plainest and the most oft-repeated. Savior and home. That is the core. That is where our attention and our priorities should be. No one-off statement, or even one-off talk—is going to revolutionize my epistemological worldview at a stroke. That’s not how this works.

On the other hand, I don’t just discard or ignore what I can’t immediately process. It will go on, rattling back and forth with the other odds and ends, until one day it clicks into place.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

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