Created Truth vs. Discovered Truth

October 13, 2010 | 31 comments
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409px-Nofretete_Neues_MuseumCan truth be created? In the church, we tend to privilege truth that is discovered, and we dismiss creative doctrine-making attempts as the “philosophies of men”. Our common discourse places the identification of truth as solely within the purview of God’s authority, to be dispensed only through His designated prophet. In this paradigm, discovered truth is the only solid truth, and the only reliable mechanism for discovering truth is authorized revelation through priesthood channels.

This worldview that privileges discovered truth is what anti-Mormons attack when they point out how Joseph Smith’s environment influenced his revelations, translations, and doctrinal innovations. Masonry, Ethan Smith, and kabbalah are threats to the “discovered truth is the only truth that matters” paradigm. The same is true of the observations that Joseph’s later doctrinal innovations came more often in observations and treatises than through explicit revelations.

The attackers suppose that if they can demonstrate that Joseph’s work was influenced by his environment then he was not a true prophet, since a true prophet would obviously reveal supernal truths, unbounded by time and culture (which is how Amos revealed antibiotics and vaccinations and how Isaiah was inspired to draw up plans for the world’s first internal combustion engine).

Obviously, my bias is away from objective, discovered truth and toward intentional, created truth. James Olson’s recent post on Heavenly Mother received a lot of criticism for promoting or exploring a doctrine that is poorly grounded, authoritatively speaking. That criticism is correct — we are grasping at doctrinal straws when we prop up our Heavenly Mother in conversation. In fact, I doubt that we’ll ever have a clear doctrinal treatise on the precise nature and constitution of God, the godhead, and the heavenly hosts.

From a created truth perspective, however, it doesn’t much matter. Rather than ask whether the doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is well supported through authorized revelation, I would prefer to ask whether it’s a doctrine that is uplifting, useful, and valuable.

While created or manufactured doctrines may not hold authorized water, it doesn’t mean that they are worthless. Defenders of slavery had clear doctrinal support from the Bible, while the Christian abolitionists had to cherry pick (and perhaps decontextualize) scriptures in order to oppose slavery. That said, I don’t know anyone who feels that emancipation was an unfortunate “philosophy of men”. Building a theological paradigm by cherry picking statements from church authorities can provide hope and real change in the same way that selectively configuring boughs and branches can create a shelter that keeps out the rain. The exercise of agency is not only in choosing what we will receive, but also in how we will apply and privilege the things that we do receive.

31 Responses to Created Truth vs. Discovered Truth

  1. Chris H. on October 14, 2010 at 12:24 am

    All “truth” is the creation of man.

  2. Mark D. on October 14, 2010 at 1:05 am

    The only way to create truth is to cause things to happen. To make, not manufacture, history.

  3. Kingsley on October 14, 2010 at 1:15 am

    I think the Church’s “worldview [privileging] discovered truth” is more nuanced than you imply. The worldview of biblical innerancy is what gets the anti’s so riled up.

  4. Kingsley on October 14, 2010 at 1:23 am

    I.e., riled up because they hold JS to their own standard, not the Church’s.

  5. Mark D. on October 14, 2010 at 1:47 am

    In fact, I doubt that we’ll ever have a clear doctrinal treatise on the precise nature and constitution of God, the godhead, and the heavenly hosts.

    If God himself doesn’t know the nature and constitution of God, I would be a little worried.

    Defenders of slavery had clear doctrinal support from the Bible, while the Christian abolitionists had to cherry pick (and perhaps decontextualize) scriptures in order to oppose slavery.

    Presumably the abolitionists were against slavery because they felt it was actually wrong, not that they had to make up a new truth so that it would be.

  6. brian larsen on October 14, 2010 at 8:41 am

    I think a discussion on what the phrase “the blood and sins of this generation” means is relevant viz. the comments on slavery. I believe it’s entirely possible that one day we will look back and realize we were “sinning” when we did (currently do) any number of the things, e.g. drive cars, eat meat, live in such wealth while other live without, etc. Not that I’m arguing each of these is a sin, but they could be – much like slavery. Honestly, I think we need to do the best with what knowledge and revelation we have. But, for me, that also implies that we seek after more truth.

  7. Bob on October 14, 2010 at 9:07 am

    It’s nice to talk about Truth in a positive way. But I must say, a lot of Truth in my life has come to me as a boot to my face.

  8. Dane Laverty on October 14, 2010 at 9:48 am

    Chris — yes, since truth can only be interpreted through the limited human sensorium.

    Mark (#2) — I’m not sure that I understand your distinction between “making” and “manufacturing”.

    Kingsley — I think discourse in church meetings is a good example of group polarization, i.e. the phenomenon wherein in a group of people together can represent a viewpoint that is more extreme than any member of that group alone. I think you’re right that the views of individual church members is more nuanced than I represent here, but I don’t think any of that nuance comes out in our Sunday meetings.

    Mark (#5) — I hope that God understands His own nature, but He doesn’t seem inclined to share it with us. LDS doctrines on the constitution of the godhead and the nature of God have changed drastically over the past 180 years.

    brian — I agree. The standards of ultimate morality are not obvious.

    Bob — Do you mean as in “the pain of learning the truth of geometry (through struggle and effort)” or “the pain of learning the truth of gravity (through a quick fall and a short stop)”?

  9. Bob on October 14, 2010 at 10:09 am

    #8: Dane, As long as there are math tests, there will be prayers in school.
    I guess I meant__” The best plans made by mices and men…..”.

  10. Bob on October 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Mice will do.

  11. Jack on October 14, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Over the years I’ve heard a lot of grasping at doctrinal straws in church. One example is the time our gospel doctrine teachers (husband and wife) tried to tell us that Jesus really didn’t get violent when he cleansed the temple of the moneychangers because if he had really done that he might have injured some of the little animals and Jesus would never have done that….in spite of what the scriptures say.

  12. Ken on October 14, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Bob’s comment (#7) that “a lot of truth in my life has come to me as a boot to my face” is spot-on in my experience. The notion of receiving revelation (i.e., truth) “line upon line, precept upon precent” as we are prepared to receive it is very powerful, and also a mystery. Sometimes we receive it in the still small voice, and sometimes as the flash of insight (“strokes of pure intelligence” said Joseph). And sometimes we receive it like the force of a pair of size 12 boots with vibram soles making an forceful and painful impact upside our head. Life is humbling.

  13. Mark D. on October 14, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Dane L, By “making history” I mean causing things to happen or creating something new that there can be new descriptive propositions about. By “manufacturing history” I mean revising history in a way that is intentionally unfaithful to what actually happened.

    I would say that the bare minimum standard for truth is the law of non-contradiction. Of any two contradicting propositions about the real world, one of them is false or meaningless. We may not know the constitution of God, but certainly there are propositions both true and false about what that constitution is, even if we do not know which ones.

    So unless you are causing new facts to come into existence by virtue of some creative activity, I don’t see how anyone can create truth. If you just make something up about something you do not know about, you are not creating truth, but rather fiction. Otherwise there is no distinction between the two. Truth is about reality. “Fidelity to reality”, more or less. Any radically contrary definition isn’t what we ordinarily mean by the term at all.

  14. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on October 16, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Truth is a value that is not well understood and an excellent source of contention. Slavery was never justified even in the OT and yet it still exist in parts of our world. The people who approved the US Constitution were very much aware that slavery was wrong. Their families had been oppressed by kings and popes in Europe. Their way of dealing with slavery was to postpone its political solution by stating that Rights are given to all mankind under one God.

    Jesus was often confronted by social behaviors which were justified by the temple priesthood, because Moses or King David allowed it and that it was permissable. His answer was it was not in God’s Commandments and that He came to proclaim NOT His own will, but the Commandments of God. Jesus, Christ proclaimed to His disciples that the Father has given Him the Judgment over all Truth. He is the Truth and the Judge of all Truth.

    Dan’s quote that: “the only reliable mechanism for discovering truth is authorized revelation through priesthood channels” leads to the First Presidency and the Twelve as the most important stakeholders in the determination of what is Truth.

    What is prevalent today is objective, intentional, discovered created truth and it is not a Truth at all. It is science, an observation that has value, a fact. When the Wright Brothers became interested in flying and their experiments proved it could be done. So today we fly in airplanes. Their premise about flying is a valid, provable thing.

  15. Paul Bohman on October 17, 2010 at 12:29 am

    I think you’ve mislabeled the dichotomy. In this post, you use the phrase “discovered truth,” but the text of your post is more in line with the idea of “revealed truth.” Science is a better fit with the idea of “discovered truth” than religion is. Religion doesn’t seem to pursue new truths hardly at all, to be honest (Joseph Smith would be an obvious exception to that assertion). Instead, it merely declares old truths (real or perceived). Despite paying lip service to the notion that the living oracle/prophet supersedes the authority of past prophets, hardly any new doctrine worth keeping has been preached by LDS prophets since the life of Joseph Smith. All of the core doctrines of our church are old. We get different emphases from time to time by different leaders, but those emphases come and go, and don’t change any core doctrines. (By the way, I don’t count the discontinuation of polygamy or the re-continuation of extending the priesthood to blacks as new doctrines. They’re changes in protocols, practices, customs, and they might even be characterized as course corrections more than anything else, though that’s admittedly a matter of opinion.)

  16. Paul Bohman on October 17, 2010 at 1:03 am

    In response to the theme of your post, the power of the argument that Joseph Smith created doctrines from influences in his surroundings is that he didn’t have to be a prophet at all for that to happen. Benjamin Franklin created a treasure trove of wise sayings for Poor Richard’s Almanac, all of which strike me as true (or at least thought-provoking), and he never proclaimed himself to be a prophet. Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein figured out truths about the laws of Physics without being prophets. And so on with every other discovery or wise person throughout history. One does not need to be a prophet to discover or proclaim truths.

    Similarly, one does not need to be a prophet to write compelling or complex literature, e.g. the Book of Mormon or the Book of Abraham. Shakespeare did alright as a mere mortal.

    If Joseph Smith’s critics can persuasively show that he did not need to be a prophet to produce his doctrines and ideas, and that all or most of his ideas have possible antecedents in his environment, then the role of prophet is not necessary, and in fact, is highly suspect. This is the same type of case that Stephen Hawking is making currently with his assertion that the existence of God is not a necessary component of explaining the creation and existence of the universe. If God is not necessary, then, Hawking reasons, he probably doesn’t exist at all.

    This is actually very strong logic, and the jump from showing that God was not necessary to concluding that therefore he wasn’t involved is a pretty short jump. The unnecessaryness of God does not prove that he wasn’t involved, but it does diminish God’s importance, and, by extension, it diminishes Joseph Smith’s claims of divine guidance.

    So if Joseph Smith’s critics are successful at making their case, Joseph Smith was no more and no less than any other person, and his ideas are not inherently more valid or truthful than any other person’s.

    If Joseph had no divine guidance, he was a liar, or, at best, deceived. This would taint the doctrines he proclaimed, no matter how valuable or “true” they might be.

    My own conclusion, then, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with discovered truths or “made-up” truths, but when these ideas are linked so inextricably with their method of revelation as Joseph Smith’s teachings are, the teachings and their provenance become almost one and the same. Sure, we may be able to learn from fiction, but if that fiction is imploring us to verify it’s truthfulness by asking God if it is true, and if that fiction asks us to believe in it or be damned (literally), the stakes are higher than normal, and the whole concept of using the Book of Mormon or other scripture as a mere morality play is exceptionally hollow and ultimately almost entirely purposeless.

  17. Bob on October 17, 2010 at 8:46 am

    #16: “This is the same type of case that Stephen Hawking is making currently with his assertion that the existence of God is not a necessary component of explaining the creation and existence of the universe. If God is not necessary, then, Hawking reasons, he probably doesn’t exist at all”.
    Nice tight laws of Physics logic. However, on a human level, I know of no Human Culture that has not seen a “necessary” for a God to be in it. Therfore___God must exist.

  18. Paul Bohman on October 17, 2010 at 11:00 am

    The useful truths that have been introduced to the world through non-prophetic channels far outnumber those that have come to us through prophetic channels. The principles underlying the invention of the wheel, the airplane, and the Internet were not announced in General Conference. And the living examples of people like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King came to us through people who had not been baptized by the authority of the Melquizedec priesthood and did not consider themselves prophets in the Mormon sense of the word.

    This does not diminish the usefulness of any of these things or teachings. And it’s pretty easy to see that these things came about as a result of environmental influences. Some of them claim to have also had divine guidance, which means it’s not an either-or proposition.

    It makes sense that the environment would play a significant role in providing the inspiration to any leader or discoverer of truths, even if divine intervention also plays a role.

    But the concreteness and literalness of Joseph Smith’s explanation of the origin of his ideas (for example, that he got them from a heavy stack of gold plates that he had to carry around and hide in various places, or from a papyrus scroll that he purchased and which is now available to scholars to double-check his translation, or through visions which were sometimes simultaneously witnessed by other individuals like Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery) means that he leaves almost no room for environmental influences in the explanation of where his ideas came from. His ideas may indeed be a mixture of revelation and personal invention, to the best of his understanding and creativity, but that’s not how he presented most if his ideas to his followers. He presented his ideas as proclamations of eternal truths that he had received by revelation from other-worldly beings, or from ancient written sources. He didn’t seem to say that he was moved to start thinking in new ways and that he feels these new ways are true (as Martin Luther did before unwittingly ushering in the era of Protestantism). Joseph continually insists that his ideas came from elsewhere through direct communications or artifacts.

    That’s why it’s hard to treat the ideas of Martin Luther and Joseph Smith in the same way, or to be as forgiving toward Joseph when we discover likely candidates in his environment that could have been the real source of his ideas. Environmental inspiration does not weaken Martin Luther’s story. In Joseph Smith’s case, however, environmental inspiration would essentially negate Joseph’s own account of where his ideas came from, even though the mesage is the same either way.

  19. Paul Bohman on October 17, 2010 at 11:55 am

    I need to correct myself slightly: It’s not true that “the message is the same either way.” I would posit that one of the main messages of the LDS church’s scriptures is to establish the legitimacy of the Restoration, irrespective of the other doctrines therein. If the Restoration is merely the product of the environment, this essentially disembowels one of the main messages of the LDS scriptures and leaves a nearly lifeless carcass. You may still be able to rescue a few nuggets of wisdom about the horrors of war, or the destructive effects of pride, or the futility of living wickedly, but you would have to lift these examples completely out of their context and discount the lifeblood and purpose of the narrative.

    So, again, non-revealed truths through non-prophetic channels are perfectly valid and useful, but because Mormonism stakes its claim that its teachings are different precisely because they come through prophetic channels, it doesn’t make much sense to extract Mormon teachings from their original context and expect them to still make the same kind of sense that they do within their original context. The Restoration *is* the unique message of Mormonism. All of the ancillary teachings of Mormonism are found elsewhere, and in many cases are taught more effectively elsewhere.

    I wouldn’t see much point of using Mormon ideas to teach much of anything to anyone else if the core message of the Restoration is not true.

  20. Kingsley on October 18, 2010 at 12:11 am

    “The Restoration *is* the unique message of Mormonism. All of the ancillary teachings of Mormonism are found elsewhere, and in many cases are taught more effectively elsewhere.”

    A-men. This quote from Hugh Nibley seems apt:

    “When solid plates pass between inhabitants of different worlds and visitors from above lay hands upon the heads of Joseph and his brethren, something is afoot. If it stopped there, we would be bemused, but Joseph kept his promise to tell us what was on the plates, to give us glimpses of things that lie beyond human reckoning.”

    It is these glimpses that keep me going, more than the sort of staple LDS-unique teachings, such as eternal families, postmortem salvation, living prophets, etc. They come only when, for one reason or another, I am caught up so that I believe in the Restoration, and find myself inside of the narrative as it were. And then it is not a matter of knowledge, or truth, or understanding, or anything I can point to particularly or even testify of. It is just a thing beyond my reckoning—a peace that passeth understanding.

  21. Mark D. on October 18, 2010 at 11:08 am

    If the Restoration is merely the product of the environment…

    It doesn’t matter how many of the doctrines of the Restoration where floating around in the environment – including in the Bible itself. I would guess the vast majority. The truth of the Restoration hangs on the inspiration and revelation to Joseph Smith to know which (much neglected) ones were important – important enough to found an entire church to promote and defend.

  22. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on October 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    Bohman and Kingsley you have summarize the dilemma facing Mormons and Christians today. Let me expand a bit further. What is taking place in Mormon and Christian theological behavior is a paradigm shift; away from old traditions and the anticipation of the new, not yet developed of thinking about Authority.

    The two concepts that Joseph Smith introduced were revolutionary, but it did not attract the stakeholders of his day and thereafter. It appealed to many people personally, but not in the way that was beneficial. It created oppression and ostracism within families and political powers.

    The idea of liberty to find and worship God was and still is strong in our world. That was also the cornerstone of the people, who approved the US Constitution. They knew they could not abolish slavery; they enjoyed their new found liberty. They postponed the issue of the oppression of slavery by returning the issue into the hands of God, when they wrote that ‘all men are created equal under God’.

    Concept #1 – The First Vision of God, the Father and Jesus, Christ and Concept #2 – the Books of Moses and Abraham. We cannot put a candle under a basket that is foolishness. The purpose of these events was to restore the remembrance, that it was God, the Father, who initiated the creation and Jesus, whose condescension will lead to our redemption from mortality.

    The stakeholders in Jesus’ day found Him not credible in a mortal body and crucified Him. They did not believe Him, when He claimed that He was there not by His own will, but to fulfill the Commandments of the Father.

    The old tradition, from the top down, were oppressive, because the stakeholders made their decision NOT with the view of achieving everlasting life, but to maintain and profit from their schemes.

    The powers of Joseph Smith’s concepts are yet to be revealed. It is very likely that it will not be by the First Presidency or the Twelve. Jesus compared Himself to a hen. He said [in the OT] to Israel, how many times have I shielded you under My wing. As God’s children we have our shield in our General Authority and the Priesthood to which we have been ordained.

    Today with broad access to education and innovative electronic communication and social websites a shift has happened. The world is chaotic, but I know that HE is risen. Jesus’ appeal has always been toward the multitude and these are the days He is in command.

  23. Kingsley on October 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    #22,

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me—at least insofar as your post relates to my very short one above.—I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the dilemma facing Mormons and Christians, or how I summarized it.

  24. Cresley Walker on October 19, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Each day we are involved in discovering the truths of what experiences it takes to create a lifeless carcass out of our mortal body and eventually we will discover the truth that we indeed did create a lifeless carcass. All foundational truths unlike events are like intelligences in that they are neither created or made only rediscovered. Baptism by Immersion by one authorized by God is a foundational truth rediscovered by Joseph Smith.

  25. Kingsley on October 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    #24,

    You mean each day we are discovering how to die? Sounds Socratic. Also—I can’t see the analogy between uncreated intelligence and a rite or ordinance like baptism. In what sense is a rite or ordinance uncreated? E.g., baptism is a symbolic reenactment of an event, a man-god laying down his life (or corrupt body) for the sake of immortality (or incorrupt body).—Baptism is a kind of one-act play, and plays are written, the fruits as it were of uncreated intelligence. JS didn’t rediscover baptism by immersion, or the idea of authorization, etc.; he just said he was authorized; which is a totally different animal. Also it explains why the clergy got so pissed.

  26. Senile Old Fart on October 20, 2010 at 7:09 am

    Perhaps the creation/manufacture of truth is somewhat akin to the discovery of agriculture some ten millenia ago. No longer did hunters and gatherers have to search for food. Rather, they learned to tend herds and cultivate plants. A rational search for truth facilitates discovery of truth (philosophies of men, mingled with scripture?) or facilitates receptivity to revealed truth.

  27. Eduard A. Erdtsieck on October 21, 2010 at 7:07 am

    Kingsley, perhaps “summarize” was overdone, but I saw something hopeful in yours and Bohman posts. Hope is all we have, therefore we still see a future in something we don’t fully understand. As long as we have hope, we keep seeking and asking, where that Light comes from? Any one who sees the Light in the chaos created by them, who are our leaders is not lost!

    Jesus of Nazareth saw what our world would become, when He visited the Temple in Jerusalem and found that it had been commercialized by vendors and money changers. He accused the priesthood in the Jerusalem temple of making the House of God into a den for thieves. It so offended them that it became one of the trumped up charges against Him as they sought His death.

    Our world is founded on the powers of stature and numbers. The temple priesthood and the Pharisees had the standing to influence His future as the Son of man and used it to their personal advantage. Unfortunately for them He resurrected Himself and saved them for Justice at the hand of His Father.

    The world today is a market place of immense proportion. It is good place for the development of DISCOVERED truths. The values of the market are factors that can only give temporary answers, because outcomes and its validity are compromises with the opposition. The values learned are not immediately convertible to celestial ones. Veracity is not founded on God’s Commandments, but in seeking observable evidence through polls. The Book of Mormon reveals another of the Father’s doctrine the need for opposition in all things.

    What is interesting; the discovered truths have brought the ability to see and to want the good things, which we as Americans enjoy, in our lives and has spread like wild fire throughout the globe. That the premise of our law makers might be faulty is likely; because the market place is only a part of God’s plan for His children. Men of stature have often devalued the revealed Truth and will have to justify it before God, the Father.

  28. Cresley Walker on October 21, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Each of us has the opportunity to learn something we did not know before, to discover something that to each of us is new. When it comes to eternal truths we are actually only rediscovering a truth that already existed independent of our own discovery. We will discover that ressurection is an ordinance, an eternal truth decreed by God which we will discover for ourselves. Baptism by immersion is an ordinance, something ordained or decreed by God that is an eternal truth which each of us has to discover for ourselves.

  29. Scott on October 24, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Bad water is worse than no water.

    Comparing truth or knowledge to water, it’s better to have no knowledge of a subject (particularly an important one) than to fabricate with opinion and induction as a substitution for truth. People get carried away when they convince themselves of things they’ve thought of themselves, and before you know it, they have a whole belief system formed around it. Then when the real truth is revealed, they “will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.” The cons outweigh the pros in this.

  30. Scott on October 24, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Additionally, I’m rather lost concerning remarks here that there’s such a thing as a knowledge learned without God or by non-revelatory means, as Brigham Young said in no equivocal terms that all knowledge is revelation:

    “If the philosopher can gaze into the immensity of space, and understand how to fashion and make glasses that will magnify a million times, that knowledge comes from the Fountain of knowledge. A man of the world may say: ‘I can foresee, I can understand, I can frame an engine, make a track, and run that engine upon it, bearing along a tram of loaded cars at the rate of forty, fifty, or sixty miles an hour.’ Another may say : ‘I can take the lightning, convey it on wires, and speak to foreign nations’ But where do they get this wisdom? From the same source where you and I get our wisdom and our knowledge of God and godliness.”

  31. Mark D. on October 26, 2010 at 2:23 am

    Scott, I think that perspective is problematic. For example, if I stub my toe, do I really need divine revelation to perceive that the nerve impulses traveling up toward the brain correspond to a stubbed toe?

    Unless one is going to take the perspective that electrons do not continue in their orbits without divine guidance (which is admittedly a reasonable interpretation of D&C 88), it doesn’t seem that divine intervention would be required to gather direct empirical evidence.

    There is a second issue related to how a mortal man can ever hope to become like God if he/she doesn’t have the same capacities in embryonic form. At best it would make everyone else second class citizens to a small handful of persons of a radically different species, no matter how much spiritual progress was made.