Where Logic Meets Love

The Trouble with Knowing Everything

Friday, April 27, 2012

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The Trouble with Knowing Everything | Faith Permeating Life

I've had several conversations lately that have caused me to think about truth. Or more specifically, how adhering to a single source of Ultimate Truth can make it very difficult to come to any sort of understanding with someone who believes different things.

For example, there are many people that believe that the Bible is the end-all, be-all source of Truth, despite its contradictions and multitude of possible interpretations. This means everything is measured up against Scripture (or at least, their interpretation of Scripture) to determine what is true. If science says the Earth is millions of years old and that humans evolved from less complex organisms, but the Bible only accounts for several thousand years and says humans were created directly by God, then obviously the Bible is right, because it is the Truth.

Other people don't interpret the Bible literally but regard the Catholic Church as the highest authority when it comes to what the correct interpretations of Scripture are, and for direction on any other issue that isn't directly covered in Scripture. These are the people who, when they discover that I don't agree 100% with Church teaching on some matter, want me to show them where in Church teaching it says that I'm allowed to disagree with Church teaching. And if I point to the doctrine on personal conscience, they want to know where in Church teaching it says that I can apply that doctrine to this particular situation. And so on. Any belief I have must somehow be wrapped up and accounted for in Church teaching or it obviously cannot be true.

But this isn't limited to religious folks. Some people believe firmly that concrete, physical evidence is the only source of Truth. Believing in something that cannot be or has not been proven throughout the scientific method is just nonsense to them. If you didn't make enough gift bags on your mission trip but there were somehow more than enough to hand out, then obviously you miscounted because science tells us that you can't create something out of nothing and inanimate objects don't spontaneously multiply. Miracles are by definition impossible because there is no place for them in this singular worldview.

The always-awesome Rachel Held Evans pointed me to the website Your Logical Fallacy Is, and I immediately found several fallacies related to this idea of a single source of Ultimate Truth.
  • There's the Appeal to Authority -- assuming something is true because a source you consider an authority, such as the Catholic Church, says it's so, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
  • There's Begging the Question -- we know everything in the Bible is true because it says, right here in the Bible, that all Scripture is from God, and therefore it's true.
  • There's even Personal Incredulity, that just because you don't know how something works you assume it's false.
All of these logical fallacies stem from the same type of situation -- relying on a single source of Truth.

I've found it incredibly difficult to hold conversations about my beliefs with people who adhere this single-mindedly to one source of Truth. Their need for a Bible verse, a Catechism citation, or physical evidence means that all other attempts at explanation become fruitless.

The way I see it is this: Every person in the world believes something different. There may be vast amounts of overlap in two people's beliefs, but there will always be some way that their understanding or their interpretations or their manifestations of those interpretations differ in how they live their lives. So what are the chances that every single thing in your unique belief system is 100% accurate?

What frustrates me most when I have conversations with people who adhere to a single existing belief system is that my own ability to seek truth is discounted. When I strive to live in a way and believe those things that are in accordance with everything I know and have experienced, people see me as wishy-washy, cherry-picking, or simply ignorant. Why? Because I can't point to a single, coherent belief system that I follow and instead am foolishly thinking *I* could know better than what Scripture says, what the Church says, or what science says.

Never mind that not one of those sources of Truth is coherent, comprehensive, and contradiction-free. It must be better than whatever I could come up with because it's older, or it was determined by a lot of people a lot more educated than I am, or it's the word of God, dammit. And therefore I need to set aside everything I will ever experience that does not fit neatly into that belief system.

For those who point to a religious belief system as the source of all Truth, I ask, is God so very limited that it is impossible He would reveal Himself in new ways? Does He care so little for me that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to be guiding my heart?

I reject the notion that all Truth is already known, revealed, understood, and explained in a singular belief system. This is why I think of myself as a Truth-seeker and not a Truth-knower. Because I know that I will always be operating on incomplete information and that I need to be open to new knowledge and new revelation. I need to continually re-evaluate my beliefs in light of not only my own experiences but those of everyone I know, and as I re-read the Bible, and as science discovers new things.

To my mind, I can never get closer to Truth and to living the life that God wants me to lead if I think that I already have all the answers and I ignore everything that doesn't fit with those beliefs.

So the next question is: Will I ever be able to talk about my beliefs with those people who believe they have all the answers already?

14 comments:

  1. My reaction while reading this was a heartfelt "YES!"

    I think on the religious side, people fear the "slippery slope" to relativism and modernism/liberalism in which anything goes and therefore everything they've ever held as truth is nothing, if they acknowledge that their chosen belief system is incomplete, and so they stay within the security of orthodoxy.

    But for me, the more I learn and experience, the more I have to acknowledge that I just don't know. And I'm ok with that. I wrestle with your 2nd question, too, and in general if I have enough of a relationship with such a person (who's less likely to put me in some kind of "other" box and immediately discount me), then I just share where I'm coming from, and my reasons. I admit, it's so very difficult, though.

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    1. You managed to hit on two more logical fallacies: the slippery slope and composition/division! :)

      I think you're right, though, that when one adheres to a single, unified belief system, part of believing in the infallibility of the system itself. So it's as if admitting to any part of the system being wrong would invalidate everything about it -- which I don't believe to be true at all.

      I agree that having a good relationship with the other person helps to move toward understanding one another. People I'm friends with tend to respect my judgment generally, even if they do adhere to a single source of truth, so they're more likely to hear me out than someone who don't know me and just writes me off as an idiot for not believing in the same authority they place their trust in.

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  2. I think in some cases people don't want to hear another opinion because if they start thinking it through they're scared of what the result might be - e.g. doubt. In other cases though, showing that you are seeking the truth and asking questions (and that you're ok with not knowing all the answers) it gives others permission to do the same.

    Most of all though, it's up to God to change people's hearts, and he can choose to use the things you say as a way to do that. So keep talking! :)

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    1. Ah, yes, fear -- I think some people will do almost anything to avoid facing their fears, including their fear that what they believe in might not be completely true. Easier to keep repeating the same beliefs over and over without question than to go to that scary place of admitting that no one, not even their beloved authority (whatever that may be), has all the answers.

      I'm working on a post about that final question of how to discuss my beliefs, but essentially my approach is to explain my reasons as much as possible in a way congruent with the other person's belief system. What I struggle with is whether that is dishonest and/or being untrue to myself, if for example I cite Scripture to back up my beliefs while choosing not to mention that I don't interpret Scripture literally, unless I get specifically questioned on that point. It's difficult, but I think it's the approach most likely to succeed when trying to get someone to consider a different viewpoint.

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  3. "For those who point to a religious belief system as the source of all Truth, I ask, is God so very limited that it is impossible He would reveal Himself in new ways? Does He care so little for me that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to be guiding my heart?"

    Aaaaaand... you just summed up the biggest difference between Mormonism and other faiths :) And people hate us for it.

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    1. Well... I think this does exist within Catholicism; for example, the doctrine on personal conscience is pretty clear about the obligation we have to follow our personal conscience. The difficulty with this is that because it's so subjective, it's still possible to say to someone, "No, that directly contradicts Church teaching; there is no way your conscience is actually saying that. It's wishful thinking on your part."

      There is also room for people to receive a direct revelation from, say, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But its authenticity has to be confirmed by the Catholic Church, and you don't have to believe in other people's revelations. So the Church has agreed that Our Lady of Fátima really did appear to children there, but you don't have to believe that in order to be a "good Catholic." The trick of course, is that if the children said the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to them and said women should be priests, would the Church have been equally as likely to believe them?

      How does the LDS Church handle personal revelations that confirm existing teaching vs. contradict existing teaching?

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  4. There are non-circular, non-fallacious arguments for the authority of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church. And, at least where the Bible is concerned, I think that some of those arguments are fairly strong. However, it can be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the Bible contains historical, moral, and theological errors. Thus, the Bible cannot be true in its entirety, and it cannot be a perfect authority. But this does not mean that the Bible contains no truth, or that it is not an authority on any issue. The hard part is determining what parts of the Bible are true or plausible, and what parts are not. I don't think that this can be done with any great confidence. But then again, no two Christians can agree on how the Bible should be interpreted, so to some extent the problem for non-inerrantists is also a problem for inerrantists.

    At any rate, in my experience, inerrantists are completely unwilling to take a hard look at the Bible. I am pretty thoroughly Reformed in my theological outlook. In other words, my theology is quite conservative. And the same is true for many of my friends. However, I am not an inerrantist, and while I do not push my view on others, my friends are aware of it. Nonetheless, very few of my Christian friends have even bothered to ask me why I am not an inerrantist; and, when I tried to explain it to them gently, they immediately tuned out. These people aren't interested in questioning any part of their beliefs. They view such questioning as dangerous and blasphemous. So they bury their heads in the sand. I don't want to say that this is true of every inerrantist in the world, but it has certainly been my experience, and I have met many inerrantists. It is sad to see so many Christians be so afraid of truth and inquiry.

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    1. There are non-circular, non-fallacious arguments for the authority of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church.
      Agreed, which is why I still look to both for guidance. What I'm referring to here is people who refuse to acknowledge that anything in the Bible could be contradictory or incorrect, usually (in my experience) because they point to 2 Timothy 3:16, which says (in NIV), "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in."

      But then again, no two Christians can agree on how the Bible should be interpreted, so to some extent the problem for non-inerrantists is also a problem for inerrantists.
      Exactly. After I read The Year of Living Biblically, I wrote about this issue in a post called Why All Christians Are "Cafeteria Christians." People may not like to think they're picking and choosing Scripture, but everyone does this to some extent -- it's unavoidable.

      It is sad to see so many Christians be so afraid of truth and inquiry.
      Yes -- for multiple reasons. Not only does it make it difficult, if not impossible, for non-inerrantists and inerrantists to reconcile their views of Scripture, but it makes many non-Christians view Christians disdainfully. I saw this recently on this If Atheists Talked Like Christians post, which was sort of funny but also sort of made me sad that many of these atheists assume I don't believe in science/evolution/whatever because I am Christian. But then many Christians don't, and if you're trying to shoot down something like religion, it's easiest if you have the most extreme example in mind. (Hey, look, I managed to work a sixth logical fallacy in here: the straw man! Haha.)

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    2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. By the way, I didn't take myself to disagree with anything you said in my original post - I was just blowing off some steam! These issues really get to me sometimes. I need to find a new hobby or activity to take my mind of them. Maybe stamp collecting?

      Anyway, I really like your point that all Christians are necessarily pickers and choosers, and that the Christian fear of truth and inquiry makes our faith look silly to outsiders. Alright, time to start that stamp collection.

      Thanks for blogging about these issues.

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    3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! These types of issues really can be frustrating -- my outlet just happens to be writing about them :) And I always appreciate new insights, whether in agreement with me or not. I hope you'll stick around and share your thoughts on future posts!

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  5. i don't even bother to give my opinion to know it alls anymore. not good for my health : )

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    1. I wish it were that easy for me! I tend to have this problem :)

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  6. is God so very limited that it is impossible He would reveal Himself in new ways? Does He care so little for me that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to be guiding my heart?

    I think Jesus addressed those questions quite well, with the answer to both being, "No!! Open your mind and listen! God is there to guide every one of us uniquely! So quit judging people who aren't doing just like you!"

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    1. And Jesus even spoke directly to the idea that God would hide things from the "wise and intelligent" and reveal them "to infants" (Matthew 11:25, Luke 10:21). He directly dismissed the idea that you have to be part of a long tradition of learned men in order to hear God's true teaching.

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