Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The First Principle of the Gospel

It occurs to me this morning that the "First Principle" of the Gospel is "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ". In my LDS experience, however, faith is not of any primacy, and while we speak of Jesus Christ, it seems that we are stuck in the literal and supernatural things he represents.
In Church. the first principle we teach is obedience, that we are here to be tested to see if we will obey, and we must do all we can do to be saved. Then, and only then, after all we can do, we are saved by grace. This obedience is not to the teachings of Jesus Christ, but rather, to the words and will of the Prophets, who speak in the Lord's name. Obedience to each and every pronouncement of the prophets is, by LDS definition, following Christ, because the Prophets are the Lord's representative. "By mine own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same." (D&C 1)
Exploring a bit, I searched on "first principles of the gospel" in Google, just to see what came up. The first four links direct me to LDS . org, number 5 is the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and number six is a speech given by a college professor at BYU on the topic.
While I do think that the LDS church employs a bit of "Search Engine Optimization" on key themes important to Mormonism, it's interesting that our Mormon thought starts with a term "First Principles". One would and should think that such concepts are important. More importantly, if "Faith" is truly the first principle, then where does "obedience" actually fit in?
To read the BYU professor's talk, he starts with the topic in Preach My Gospel about Faith in Jesus Christ, but takes it a step further. To him, "Faith exists when absolute confidence in that which we cannot see combines with action that is in absolute conformity to the will of our Heavenly Father. Without all three—first, absolute confidence; second, action; and third, absolute conformity—without these three all we have is a counterfeit, a weak and watered-down faith."
"Absolute confidence"..."absolute conformity"...without these, we have "counterfeit faith".
I wonder. I truly wonder.
When we speak of "First Principles" in the quest for truth, usually we mean that there is something upon which our entire quest depends--something so important that we must embrace this before everything else. My fundamental question is whether "Absolute Confidence" is an appropriate beginning to any quest for truth -- I do not believe it is.
This, to me, is the heart of faith crisis: the idea that we think of faith as something it is not, and we have not created the right "First Principles" in our faith journey to properly navigate our Way.
We have been told, repeatedly, that our Church and gospel are an all-or-nothing proposition: "Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing." (Hinckley, 2003) While the term "true" could be an indicator of "direction" or "allegiance", the more common interpretation of "true" has a more epistemic (how we know things) meaning: that which is without material error or subterfuge.
As a result, we embrace a testimony in the church that makes epistemic claims about the truth of the church and gospel: I know that the book of mormon is an ancient record, translated by the gift and power of god, I know that we have a living prophet on the earth, I know that if we follow the prophets we cannot go astray. Such claims of "I know" do not allow for the humility of "I believe", or the recognition that something may be false. It is an expression of certainty, of knowledge. A "pure testimony" makes these claims.
Yet we come to a realization that within our realm of "Absolute Confidence" that there are things for which we realize do not justify such certainty. Perhaps, by doing a little digging among the LDS . org site, we find that the Book of Mormon wasn't actually "translated" at all, but rather, was somehow expressed through "scrying" -- peering into a seerstone in a hat. Perhaps we find that the Book of Abraham -- what it says it is in the Pearl of Great Price, and authentic translation of writings of Abraham by his own hand -- has absolutely nothing to do with the actual characters in papyrus or especially in the facsimiles in the book itself. There are dozens of things for which we discover that the Church and gospel are in some ways "not true".
What, then, happens to our "Absolute Confidence" in the Church when we discover there is a profound flaw? Is "Absolute Conformity" justified if we come to know that there are some things in the Church's teachings that are false?
Rene Descartes was faced with much this same problem. He had discovered as he matured in life that there were a number of things he held to be absolutely true in his youth that are no longer true. This profoundly disturbed him, so he set aside some time from his work and teaching to meditate on first principles.
Importantly, his first meditation was to discover that his entire schema of knowledge was potentially flawed, and being such, the only way to really build the proper foundation was a complete "destruction" of his schema of knowledge. He not only had doubts, but embraced them fully, realizing that only by doubting everything could he build the proper foundation.
Many who read Descartes' first meditation call this kind of doubt "hyperbolic doubt". The reality is much deeper. Descartes was suggesting a methodical approach to determining truth, and part of that method was to recognize, in humility, that we don't know. Methodical doubt is the first step on a journey towards truth.
But in this process of methodical doubt, the idea of completely discarding our schema of what we know is so profoundly unintuitive to members of the Church, it's never a good idea to muse in public. I frequently say, here, that I do not *believe* a single truth claim of the church. I do not *believe* in prevailing omni-whatever definition of god (although Descartes most certainly did). Such statements rapidly escalate into an emotional issue for members of the church, immediately labeling me as a "nonbeliever" or an "atheist", which, while technically accurate terms, do not mean the same thing for me than for those who are labeling me.
But the First Principle of the gospel is not doubt by itself. Doubt simply is the beginning of refining faith. To be clear, the First Principle of the Gospel is "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ". I'm going to suggest that when we refer to this as a "First Principle", we need to fully understand what "Faith" and "the Lord Jesus Christ" mean, not in a dogmatic sense of "doctrinal" answers, but rather, in terms of how these two things, together, constitute a "First Principle".
When we think of First Principles in the pursuit of truth, it's important that we start with some basics:
1. We need to address how we can "know" things. This area of concern is formally called "Epistemology". Curiously, the greek term for "faith" is "pistis" as a noun, and "epistomai" as a verb. In short, "Epistemology" is entirely about "Faith": how we come to know truth.
2. We need to understand the nature of the how things are, how they exist. This area of concern, discovering the nature of being, is formally called "ontology". The identity of things, how we label them, is all part of this exploration of ontology. Ontology asks questions like "Who am I?" "Who or what is god?" "What is the nature of existence?"
These two disciplines are essential to our quest for truth.
With respect to Epistemology, we need to understand how we can make the claim "I know that X is true" or "I know that X is not true", and what our approach shall be for that which is between these two poles of "knowledge". We will discover that "Faith" is the epistemic Middle Way between these two poles: the idea that Faith is not certainty, it is the humble recognition that we don't know, but given that we hope for things, we are willing to try them and to discover the truth of them.
With respect to Ontology, we will come to embrace an understanding what it means to say "I AM", and realizing this, we will come to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as a being who was fully god and fully man, who marked the path and led the Way to an integrative oneness with all that is.
As LDS, we will discover along this journey that we have unique approaches to both epistemology as well as ontology. Alma 32 will express an epistemology that redefines "faith" away from assertive belief into an experiential reconstruction of both knowledge and faith. As we embrace the LDS view of the plurality and unity of gods, we will come to a unique ontology: we exist as eternal beings in an emergent progression toward godliness, as does the being we call "Heavenly Father". To realize the intimate name of God is "I AM", and eternal constants of the universe are its matter and laws, give unique ontological insight into our divine nature. Jesus revealed this nature in John as he spoke of us being in the present gods, and that he was "I AM".
Let us therefore explore the First Principle of the Gospel in a unique light. To embrace "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" is to recognize that I need to understand how I know things and what those things are in the first place. Such exploration cannot occur when the cup of our minds are full of preconceived dogma. We must cast aside everything we think we know, and come to a methodical deconstruction and reconstruction of faith.
This is the Journey of a lifetime.
Shall we walk upon this Way?

No comments:

Post a Comment