Category Archives: Religion

Judge Not

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How does a person know which church is true? More generally, how does one know whether anything is true? An investigation into this question helps reveal an answer to the abstract question, “What is truth?”

This essay presupposes that there is a God and a divine truth. Call the following Proposition I:

I. It is possible to learn about God.

Proposition I will be treated as an axiom. If the proposition is false, then there is no reason to continue the discussion further on this or any religious subject. So let it be accepted on faith.

Religious leaders teach ways to discern whether something is true, by listening to God. Call the following Proposition II:

II. Divine inspiration is a reliable way to know what is true.

If inspiration from God does not lead us to truth, then what could? One alternative is to listen to prophets or other special individuals that give us God’s words. But since there are so many different sources that claim to know God’s will, a person still has to choose between them. That decision itself requires that a person be privy to personal inspiration. Another alternative is the belief that it is impossible to know what is true. But that contradicts Proposition I, because it leaves people without a way to learn about God. Once it is accepted that Proposition I is true, then Proposition II must follow.

Next, conduct a thought experiment involving two sincere people. Both practice different religions. Is it possible that both of them feel that they are following God? Simply out of respect for various religions and for their faithful members, it is easy to conclude the following:

III. Sincere people following their beliefs can be found in many different religions.

It seems reasonable to claim that not all religions agree on what is true. Even though it could be argued that all religions are on the same path, that is certainly not an argument that is supported by many of the religious adherents themselves. So then what would happen if the people in this thought experiment are both in the habit of praying about their beliefs? Specifically, what is to be expected if both of them pray about whether their respective religions are true? One easy answer is that neither of them would ever get a response from God. But that would contradict Proposition I again. Another theory is that one of them (or possibly both of them) would receive an answer that their current religion is wrong. That experience certainly has happened to some people. However, it’s not possible for that to always be the case for all people. If it were, then all the sincere people would leave those wrong religions. Eventually all sincere people would belong to the same religion, and the other churches would be left with the people who either didn’t pray about their religion or who didn’t heed the answer. That theory contradicts Proposition III, which asserts that no single religion has a monopoly of sincere believers. The only reasonable explanation is that people of many churches have prayed about their respective religions and have gotten an answer that theirs is true.

IV. An answer to a prayer for one person can contradict an answer to a prayer for another person.

The next task is to discover what it means for different answers to be given to different people. The most common reaction to this paradox is to adopt the philosophy of cold absolutism. Namely, only one of those answers can be true. At least one of the people who thinks they know the truth is actually confused or deceived. This is an attractive philosophy because it means that the truth is simple, and that some people are right and others are just wrong. It’s an especially attractive philosophy if you believe you are one of the people who are right.

Unfortunately, absolutism cuts like a double-edged sword. It admits the existence of confusion in personal revelation. If it is possible for someone to think they have received inspiration from God but in fact they have been given a wrong answer, then how can any person avoid being deceived? Anyone who thinks that prayers are less than perfect for other people should put himself or herself in those shoes. This explanation is tantamount to saying that many answers to prayers are not accurate, which contradicts Proposition II.

A similar absolutist explanation is that both answers may contain some truth, but both are not true to the same degree. In other words, an answer from God may lead someone towards truth without revealing the whole truth. Because of that, a yes–no question about whether a principle is true might evoke either a “yes” or a “no” answer depending on the maturity of the listener. Again, this belief is more attractive to people who think they have received a greater degree of truth than their neighbor.

This theory would mean that people who are following answers to prayers can trust that they are on the right path, but they cannot know whether the answers themselves will prove true in the end. They can assert, “I am following the path that is right for me.” They are not justified in saying, “My doctrine is correct.” According to this theory, prayer is not expected to reveal correct principles. At most it reveals a correct direction. Unfortunately, this undercuts Proposition II.

Many faithful believers are wont to say, “I know my church is true.” If absolutism is correct, then testimony like that is merely speculation. Even when someone claims to be a prophet or missionary and to teach God’s word, they could still be incorrect. Worse, a proselytizer makes the additional mistake of succumbing to overconfidence in such convictions.

It’s common to find people in pursuit of “universal truth,” which is an absolutist concept. Universal truth means truth that is the same for all people all the time. Based on the foregoing discussion, universal truth could be seen as a temptation created by the devil, rather than the handiwork of God. If universal truth existed, then it would be austere and unattainable.

While it would be hard to disprove this theory, it is certainly unpalatable. It would be comforting to discover an alternative theory, in which prophets are not presumptuous, and in which divine truth is accessible. The following proposition springs from this wish:

V. It is possible to know true doctrine, and to know that one knows it.

If Proposition V is true, then what are the consequences? It contradicts absolutism, because in absolutism there is no way to distinguish between the person who is incorrect and the person who knows the truth. This proposition implies that different people could seek God, (as in Proposition I), they could feel inspired that their religion is true, (as in Proposition II), and those people could all belong to different religions, (because of Proposition III), and they could hold irreconcilable beliefs, (as in Proposition IV), yet their beliefs must all be correct, (because of Proposition V).

The assertion that, “My church is true,” is similar to the affirmation, “I am special.” From an absolutist perspective, neither statement has any meaning when everybody is saying it. Paradoxically, though, we don’t look down on people who say they are special. We don’t view all the “special” people as being in competition with each other, and that’s because they don’t intend for their specialness to be exclusive. We never worry that only one person is special and that all the other people are wrong. Likewise, the commitment to a religion makes sense when it is viewed noncompetitively. If two sincere people claim to belong to the only true religion, then let’s be generous and grant that they are both truthful. We may need to reexamine what “truth” means.

VI. All the different voices that proclaim their religions are true can all be simultaneously correct.

The most natural reaction to Proposition VI is to assume that all religions are equal and even interchangeable. In the previous thought experiment, two people from different religions each felt the inspiration that their beliefs were true. If the first person left his church and joined that of the second person, then he would be denying his personal revelation. Ignoring inspiration always runs contrary to Proposition II, because there is no better source for divine truth. Certainly to that person, the two churches are not interchangeable. Meanwhile, if the second person does not follow his personal revelation by remaining dedicated to the second church, then he is likewise leaving God’s path. Each person is responsible for following all the inspiration they have received. The fact that a certain revelation was given to the first person apparently should not be used by the second person as justification to follow the same.

A consequence of Proposition II is that the truth is defined externally, by God. That can hold even though the truth may not be the same for each person. In other words, Proposition VI does not state that people can whimsically choose whatever religion they want, (although that is a popular relativist philosophy). Each person gets to discover truth independently, but each person does not get to invent the truth as they wish it would be.

What then does “truth” mean, if reality is so plastic? In absolutism, truth is whatever agrees with physical reality, which is the same for everyone. In this alternative formulation, truth is whatever agrees with personal divine inspiration. The latter idea is easier to understand in some ways, even though it may sound foreign. For example, philosophers get into arguments over the fact that reality gets interpreted by different people in different ways. Reality presents a new face depending on the observer. That debate could be extended into spiritual realms, where uncertainty and disagreement are common. Only through divine inspiration can one get a clear picture of what God wants us to see. From there, it only takes a small logical leap to define the divine inspiration itself as the real truth. In other words, nothing is more true than revelation from God, even though the revelation is confined to the receiver’s own mind. The idea that something external must be more true than our thoughts is an absolutist illusion.

Suppose I am reading a book of scripture. Even though it is easy to believe that the book itself physically exists outside of my mind, I don’t have to believe that my testimony of the truth of the scriptures is likewise physical or outside myself. I wouldn’t be surprised when others who handle the physical book still disagree with my beliefs about the book. Spiritual truths are simply not required to follow the same laws that common sense expects of physical things. I could conceive of a world where God wishes to impart different truths to each individual, so that they share physical reality but not spiritual realities. God, knowing all, may see the threads by which each of those truths can lead directly to him, even when mortals are unable to understand how their various beliefs refer to the same God.

Under this definition of reality, it does not make sense for two people to expect that they both have the same understanding of truth. It is as if our existence is an individual gift, and what we know as our spiritual reality is tailored for us alone. It is pure vanity to try to judge someone else’s beliefs according to our standards. We are only able to decide that others’ beliefs don’t agree with our standards, or that others’ actions don’t agree with the government’s laws. We cannot make the additional presumption that those others have disobeyed what God instructed them. So what should be done to reconcile our beliefs with the people around us? The Bible commands us to “judge not.” It is sufficient in this life that we each understand and follow the truth that has been given to us. To try to appraise the world’s spirituality according to any one standard is to want something that we were not meant to have.

A reasonable concern that is raised by this argument is whether or not people should attempt to share their beliefs, knowing that their listeners inhabit different spheres of spiritual reality. One promise that should make a difference is found back in Propositions I and II. Whenever two people discuss their beliefs and feel the presence of the divine, then they are learning about God and can trust in the information. Scriptures record that God at times calls people to teach to each other, and that those words can frequently help others on their own path. Those people who endeavor to preach the truth may not be guaranteed success, but these propositions will give them no excuse to abandon their efforts.

Seeking out truth is still important to people who oppose absolutism. The opinion that universal truth must be the only kind of truth is a misconception. Renouncing absolutism can even lead to a healthier respect for other beliefs. The key to finding an alternative is understanding that spiritual truth is a private matter between each individual and God.

War Room

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What arguments could possibly have convinced a third part of the hosts of heaven to surrender to Lucifer?

Five people sat around a table in the center of a bare classroom. Nothing in the room marked the passage of minutes, because time itself had not been created yet. A gentleman with bushy white eyebrows and trembling jowls spoke first. “I’m Caleb. I’m presiding at this meeting in place of Samson. He’ll join us later.

“We have allowed Rezin here to be our guest. I bet he wants to give us a missionary lesson.”

Rezin’s wide smile projected a halo of confidence. His mane of hair was arranged in a perfect part. Nobody made eye contact with him yet. “Thank you, Caleb. I’m here to represent His Highness. You should know that we haven’t given up on any of you, even though you rejected the Angel’s Plan and followed after the Opposition Plan. We never give up on anybody, ever.

“You agree with me on most issues. We agree that an earth should be created. That’s been unanimous. We all want to get the most out of the once-ever probationary experience. I’m here because I know I can help you and I want to tell you how to make the earth the best place for you.”

Caleb had been drumming the table and trying to swivel away. “We don’t want to hear about how charitable you are,” he interrupted. “Don’t forget there’s a war on.” He smiled after this demonstration that he was still in charge.

“Then I can get right to the heart of the matter,” apologized Rezin. “The dispute is about knowledge. One side wants knowledge to be free for all. The other wants to guard it, so that nobody on earth would have very much of it. The Opposition Plan would leave people uninformed, but they would still be judged on their choices. Our plan—the Angel’s Plan—is the only one where everyone will understand the entire purpose of their life.”

Caleb interposed again, as if it were one of his responsibilities. “I don’t think they will need such great knowledge. There will be a lot of activities that can be done even with a veiled mind.”

Dan’s commanding voice entered the debate. “I’d like to hear more about that, Rezin. The whole point of the experience is supposed to be to learn more, isn’t it?”

“You’re absolutely right, Dan,” encouraged Rezin, with the energy of a driver boarding a moving stage. “And the more knowledge you gain down there, the more you’ll have when you return back here. Choosing the Opposition Plan is like descending from a great height into a dreary wilderness covered by a mist of darkness.” Dan chewed his lower lip and looked to Caleb.

“That’s all true,” returned Caleb. “On the other hand, the Opposition Plan has other ways to keep people busy. You just do everything you’re told, so you make it back here. Then you can amass all the knowledge there is in the afterlife.”

Jordan raised his hand and opened his small mouth to get the group’s attention. “I don’t know yet whether I’ll be protected if I go with the Opposition Plan. Their leaders have been very convincing, assuring me that everything is for my own good, including my lack of understanding.”

Rezin sighed at this potential recruit. “Yes, there would be a famine of information, and instead there would be riches of misinformation, even lies and treachery and every crime. Tell me, Jordan, have they talked to you about what happens if you make mistakes on earth?”

Jordan quickly answered, “They talk about it over and over. It’s almost all we hear about.”

“They emphasize that because they expect you to make mistakes,” continued Rezin. “They don’t say out loud that they plan on you, individually, being counted as unworthy. But the Opposition Plan is formulated so that each of you is bound to be ensnared during your life.”

Jordan mused, “They say they don’t want anyone to be lost. Still, I’ve been getting the idea that their plan was tailored with more attention to my weaknesses than my strengths.”

“But the obedient ones will be rewarded, and that’s what’s important!” Caleb protested.

“Oh, we ask for obedience too,” consoled Rezin. “The difference is that the Angel’s Plan is fashioned so that everyone receives equal treatment, and no soul will be left behind.”

“We don’t talk about numbers, but I can say that under the Opposition Plan, few people will be counted as righteous,” Caleb reported.

“That’s not what I want to hear about my future probation. I deserve some kind of guarantee that I’m going to succeed,” decided Jordan.

Dan rejoined the discussion. “How is it that everyone will be so better informed in one plan versus the other?”

Caleb responded gravely, “The Opposition Plan doesn’t include as much communication between heaven and earth. Instead, we are going to invent the ‘mystery.’ It means that teachings will be confusing enough that people could ponder them for a lifetime and still not understand them.”

Rezin seized another opportunity. His hand glided over the table. “The Angel’s Plan ensures that everyone will know the same things, and so they’ll agree on everything. That fact alone will make the earth a more peaceful place. Light and understanding will emanate through the world from the presence of the Prince of Angels himself.”

Rezin turned to a stately matron, the one woman at the table, and asked, “Have you got any questions for me, Valerie?”

“I don’t like all this confrontation,” Valerie said crossly. “That’s why I’ll never be interested in switching my allegiance.”

Everyone watched Rezin nod. “It’s disheartening to witness so much fighting. I wish both sides would bury the hatchet.”

Caleb charged into the opening he saw. “I’m not afraid of a fight. Every enemy has weaknesses. Winning people over just takes both perception and perseverance. By the conclusion of the Opposition Plan, you can be sure that every man will bow his knee before my liege.”

Rezin waited, while the silence itself seemed to score points for his cause. “I’d like to paint a mental picture for you, of two worlds. One world is filled with concord, the other with conflict. The first world contains an abundance of unity because of the order that is natural to the Angel’s Plan. The stones themselves are happy to cooperate for the benefit of mankind. The other world, as the name Opposition implies, is a continual scene of violence. People must wrest a living away from the earth, for all species are in competition. Necessities are scarce, so that an honest man can’t acquire food without depriving someone else.”

“How are these contests decided?” asked Dan.

“Nothing could be easier,” explained Caleb. “The only rules would be the physical laws of nature. The mightier party gets to take as much as they are capable of, and the weaker party gets nothing. The heavenly sense of justice would not have to be present.”

“So it’s only with the Angel’s plan that I wouldn’t have to question whether God remembers me,” offered Dan.

“Is it true that there will be so much conformity that we won’t be allowed to make any choices ourselves?” wondered Jordan.

“That’s an unfounded rumor,” dismissed Rezin. “Everyone will control their own decisions. No plan can exist without free will. The beauty of the Angel’s Plan is that you never have to wonder which choice is correct, because the answer will be obvious.”

“That’s different than the intrigue in the Opposition Plan,” countered Caleb. “Not everyone will be told what’s right, and some people who are told what’s right will get conflicting answers. Ethics will be profoundly complicated. Every principle will have an exception. People will figure out how to judge the right way only for their present circumstances. Mingling such diverse world views within a single world is an ingenious invention, which we call ‘agency.'”

Dan scowled. “The Angel’s Plan is more compelling than I ever expected.”

“Yes, I can help if you’ll let me. Valerie, there’s a comfortable place for you in our family,” Rezin implored.

Valerie preached to him, “People who I respect immensely have warned me against your Angel’s rebellion. That includes the Father of spirits himself. I remember that he asked us to be steadfast during this controversy. I don’t have to hear any more arguments, because that will always be my highest priority.”

Concern clouded Valerie’s brow when Caleb scolded her, “That much reliance on others is a dangerous foundation for building your entire future, if you ask me. I don’t like our followers to be so helpless.”

“I understand you, Valerie,” confided Rezin. “I have seen many souls who joined our side out of respect for our Prince. They know that Lucifer is a formidable leader. I imagine that he even exemplifies the best characteristics you depend on in your role models.”

Samson entered the room, causing the conversation to stop. He stood at the table surveying each face. “I hope this experience was profitable for everyone. I admit that it was with trepidation that I agreed to give Rezin and Caleb a forum to evangelize for Lucifer’s plan.”

“Samson, you’re confusing me,” protested Dan, recoiling out of his chair. “Rezin has been explaining the Angel’s Plan, while Caleb has been on our side.”

“Don’t believe a word of it,” chided Samson. “Rezin and Caleb are confederates. Neither of them supports the Savior’s Plan.” The weight of several glares bore down on Caleb.

“Everyone calls it the ‘Opposition Plan,'” corrected Rezin.

Samson was paying more attention to his students than to the visitors. His calm demeanor was contagious. “Whenever one disregards the Savior’s role in the plan, it’s easy to overlook the infinite grace that will sustain us through troubles on earth. All of you must feel confused after this duo’s performance.”

Caleb spoke, but he didn’t sound like the blunderer everyone had met earlier. “We’ve just been employing a rhetorical device to get our point across. It was all for your own good. Narrow-minded people frequently close their ears to our arguments, so we have to resort to creative measures, to ensure as fair a skirmish as possible.”

“Regardless of who presented the arguments, I have serious doubts about the Savior’s Plan,” pointed out Dan. Jordan accompanied him with a nod. “I feel like my eyes have been opened.”

“I know you’ll make the right decision,” promised Samson. “The issues are still the same as they always have been. When you were more innocent, the choice was clear. To be fair, your natural tendency was merely to demonize anything unfamiliar. But now that Lucifer’s angels have come and played their siren song, you’re going to have to choose all over again.

“To prepare for our next meeting, please be extra diligent in your study and prayer. Consider this debate an object lesson. The moral is that every dispute you think you fully understand is just a subtle temptation waiting to surprise you. It’s foolish to believe that you’ll always recognize a devil on first sight.”