Category Archives: Epistemology

Plan of Truth

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There’s a popular Mormon doctrine that describes the future of the soul. It’s always called the Plan of Salvation. Teachers present it so often that I have wondered what made it so important. People wouldn’t accidentally find themselves in Hell just because they forgot the order in the diagram.

If you wanted, you could draw a similar diagram that represents the plan as taught by other religions. The following is a Catholic chart of the Plan of Salvation. The soul must attain a state of grace, and then it is destined to go to Heaven when it dies. A soul that dies in a state of sin will go to Hell.

Along the same lines, the following is a simplified Hindu chart of the Plan of Salvation. The soul, which has always existed, reincarnates over and over, achieving higher stations in life, until attaining Moksha, which is liberation and oneness with Brahman.

Now permit me to follow a tangent. Each of those three religions has their own works of scripture, just as they have their own ways of choosing scripture. The Hindu canon contains an assortment of ancient texts, including a sacred body called the Smriti. An example of one of those works is the Bhagavad Gita. The present form of the Gita was the result of many revisions. Wikipedia says, “The entire epic went through a lengthy process of accumulation and redaction during roughly the 5th century BCE to the 5th century CE.” Eventually the revisions were complete, and the Gita is now believed to contain eternal truth. Other Hindu texts, such as the Puranas, were also incrementally refined over several centuries.

In the Catholic Church, doctrines are decreed by the Pope, sometimes after a decision by an Ecumenical Council. Such decrees are infallible. Anyone who doesn’t accept the dogma is a heretic and is subject to punishment. Before an official decree, the doctrines may be debated, but after a decree there is no more room for doubt.

The Mormon way to find truth involves personal communion with the Holy Ghost. A sermon in Alma 32 described how truths are learned through experimentation. By the results of the experiment, one can find different degrees of enlightenment. First, a truth that is part of the Gospel is a saving truth. Second, a piece of good advice that is not Gospel is less important, but is still an honorable truth. Third, a mere fact that has no saving power is what I call a trivial truth. Last, we occasionally encounter a falsehood, which is a complete lack of truth.

The Plan of Salvation diagrams for different religions mirror their respective methods for identifying truth. In other words, the way a religion judges souls is similar to the way it judges ideas. I know of only one scripture that hints at such a relationship between souls and truth; it’s a cryptic verse in D&C 93 that equates intelligence with truth:

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

To take this analogy a little further, it seems that Judgement eventually comes both to truths and to souls. Mormonism holds that some truths are fundamental, saving truths. Those become stepping stones for learning more truths, and so on forever. Likewise, Mormonism holds that righteous souls live forever in the Celestial Kingdom and enjoy eternal increase.

There lies the answer to my question about why the Plan of Salvation is taught so prominently: it is a roadmap for finding the truth. Religions teach their respective Plans of Salvation as a subtle tool to help people internalize the rules for judging truth. Because of that, the diagrams don’t merely explain what happens after death, because the diagrams also change the way people view everyone and every idea around them. Teaching about ideas by allegorically teaching about heaven is rhetorically more effective than teaching about ideas directly. The Plan of Salvation is one of the most powerful teachings for altering behavior, in any religion.

It’s curious that symbolically our souls and our ideas share so much in common. I wonder if that means that we should consider our own lives to be embodiments of eternal truths. A person’s actions are expressions of that person’s individual truth. The influence of a person’s life proves the power of that truth. Such a truth would be too complex to define in a single sentence, but it could be defined by an entire life’s work. Each person’s truth would be unique, although it would be related to surrounding truths. Honesty and integrity could be defined by how faithful a person’s actions are to their essential truth.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if your entire life represented one grand truth? What if the purpose of your life were to learn what that truth is, and to live by it?

Infallibility

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The prophet Wilford Woodruff taught,

I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.

This doctrine says that the prophet will always lead the church correctly. A different, and equally accepted, doctrine maintains that prophets are just people that can make mistakes. I recently heard a story retold about the fallibility of divine revelation:

Simonds Ryder was converted to the Church in 1831. Later he received a letter signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, informing him that it was the Lord’s will, made manifest by the Spirit, that he preach the gospel. Both in the letter he received and in the official commission to preach, his name was spelled Rider instead of Ryder. Simonds Ryder “thought if the ‘Spirit’ through which he had been called to preach could err in the matter of spelling his name, it might have erred in calling him to the ministry as well; or, in other words, he was led to doubt if he were called at all by the Spirit of God, because of the error in spelling his name!” (History of the Church, 1:261). Simonds Ryder later apostatized from the Church.

For many believers there is tension between God’s perfection and the apparent mistakes in some of his earthly messages. Ironically, only someone who achieved complete confidence in a prophet could be surprised by as small an error as a spelling mistake. After a short digression, I’ll explain my way of reconciling these two doctrines.

Speed limits in the United States are decided by individual states. The maximum allowed speeds differ by 20 mph. Outside of the U.S. there is even more variety, including areas without speed limits. Now ask yourself the question, which speed limit is correct? You might consider factors such as safety and fuel efficiency. But even if you became an expert, you would have a difficult time proving that any individual state has a “wrong” speed limit. Each state has the legal authority to create its own speed limit, so whatever limits they choose are the only correct limits in their respective jurisdictions.

The Mormon church uses the concept of stewardship similar to jurisdictions. For example, a bishop has stewardship over a ward. That means it is the bishop’s responsibility to make decisions for the ward. Those decisions are correct, in the sense that it is the ward’s duty to follow the bishop. It doesn’t matter whether an objective observer would agree with the bishop’s decisions. It also doesn’t matter whether an adjoining ward is run by completely different rules. The only relevant point is that the bishop was entrusted with responsibility over the ward. When members of the Church seek for inspiration about following their bishop’s idiosyncratic rules, they should expect that the answer from God will be in favor of obedience. Only the bishop’s own Priesthood leaders are empowered to correct him.

The reliability of the prophet is a true doctrine–trivially true–by definition. The prophet has the authority to lead the Church however he sees fit. The prophet will still make human errors. Even if a prophet’s decision were a possible mistake, no one on earth has the authority to appeal it or overturn it. So members of the Church are obliged to follow the prophet’s counsel always. God does not want to cultivate disobedience, so the answers He gives to prayers will always confirm the prophet’s words. Mature members of the Church stay on the side of both God and His prophet, even when they feel like they are indulging a prophet’s supposed weaknesses.