The Rocky Shore

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A More Rational Theology

Math is an interesting thing. Most people profess a strong fear of it, myself being one such person until I began to take it seriously. I was a sophomore in college when I first began to make the study of mathematics a serious endeavor. Up until this time, I had been a philosophy major. Upon returning from my mission, I decided I needed to take a more pragmatic approach to my career; I needed a career from which I could comfortably support a family. I decided engineering was my new forte, and delved into math and science classes, subjects which until this time I had never really studied. I fell in love with math. I think Bertrand Russell summed up a love for mathematics best:

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty -- a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.”

He also once said “that mathematics is capable of an artistic excellence as great as that of any music, perhaps greater…because, in fact, it constructs an ideal world where everything is perfect but true.” This is what I saw (and continue to see) in the logical approach to the world a mathematical mind embodies.

The Gospel is true, but the Mormon conception of deity has very little to do with math. Not all religions have been this way; Greeks such as Pythagoras based much of their conception of deity and its relationship with the world on the austerity of mathematics. But Mormonism is not exacting. In fact, more often than not, it has been incredibly inconsistent (I’m sure there are many out there who will argue against this opinion). As a person who values logic, the inconsistencies of Mormonism have long bothered me.

Christian Cardall’s blog, The Spinozist Mormon sports an interesting quote: “Although all is not gold that shines, … yet, “by proving contraries,” truth is manifest…” (Joseph Smith Jr, 5 June 1844), and LDS Science Review has a subheading that reads: “That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy.” (First Presidency 1910). These quotes seek to present the faith as rational. In my experience, Mormons love to view their religion as rational, but I can see the faith as rational only in a compartmentalized sort of way: it is piecewise rational. The faith also seems to be defended in a piecewise manner. In my view, this piecewise approach to our faith all too often leads to ‘missing the forest for the trees’.

I wish the Mormon conception of the gospel were treated as mathematicians treat their field, where axioms are assumed, and based upon those axioms, things are inferred. All too often in our theology, it seems that preconceptions are formed, and then axioms are created to justify those preconceptions.

The gospel is very simple and it has very little to do with justifications for our beliefs, or apologetic responses to criticism. I think the only thing the Savior ever wanted people to learn from him was how to love each other, yet it is what we routinely fail to do.

I wish we would start with an axiom that states: ‘we love all people, regardless’. I believe beginning here, and then building our theology with strict adherence to this axiom would provide, not only the logical religion I desire, but also a much stronger Mormonism. If we are to be recognized by our fruits, then our most basic conceptions of our religion need to be grounded in the ideal of loving our fellow persons. It is only through grounding ourselves in this ideal, that our fruits will ever truly reflect the Savior’s teachings.


  • I enjoyed those mathematician's quotes in the way that they recognize common ground even at the very foundation of two ostensibly polarized means of understanding reality-science and art. However I would argue that neither of them actually ‘possess’ truth, but rather have the quality of reflection of truth. Just as in biology, DNA isn’t seen as the source of intelligence but rather it’s conveyer, science and art are not their own sources either. Mathematics, through its system of logic and symbols, seeks to objectively unmask the secrets of nature which, as a matter of presumption already exist in truth independent of any attempt to understand them, while the other (art) is the subjective-abstract approach to essentially the same end. I think this is an important point because it fortifies the nexus in aim between the two (understanding this thing called reality) even further which allows for a better understanding of the appropriates for the application of each in the different strata of life.

    Since the dawn of man it has been recognized that the human mind is capable of two modes of consciousness-rational and intuitive-traditionally associated with science and religion, respectively. I think it is all-important to have balance in employing these modes in life, not to favor one over the other but simply to use them within their appropriate context. I am convinced that logic and rationality, with its tendency toward organization and consistency, is the optimal approach in the realm of our daily experience where external sensory input is processed through our intellect and given its meaning. Since the bulk of our experience is dominated by physicality and objectivity this includes most things actually, like interpersonal communication, organization of learned knowledge and most decision making. I agree with you that even the building up of a theology is best done rationally with special attention given to consistency. If the axiom isn’t given absolute primacy in all aspects of that theology than the hope for a successful outcome in logic is a nonstarter.

    When it comes to spiritual experience I am equally firm in my belief that rationality must give way to insight. By spiritual experience I’m not referring to the usual perception that robotic adherence to the study of gospel and perfect church attendance is of primary importance, but rather what comes from actually following through on the exhortations that these spiritual “maps” offer (unconditional love for others being arguably the most important) which lead one to the real destination. The destination is direct spiritual experience where, in this case, knowingness is arrived at, not through science and logic, but through insight.

    This is the fertile ground from which the axioms needed to proceed logically within any theology are derived-the interface of science and religion. So we absolutely need both. I think it is an over-attachment to the spiritual “maps” that cause many to, not only mistake the forest for the trees as you astutely put it, but to mistake the forest altogether for the map. I think Christ wants all of us to live in the “forest” where loving one another isn’t anything you have to struggle to do at all.

    I like that you’ve keyed in on the word “love” because implicit within it are all the other virtues: compassion, acceptance, charity, kindness, forgiveness and on, and on. That is the kind of love that I believe Christ is referring to and I believe it is the same love eluded to in a favorite 6,000 year old aphorism of mine which says that, “love is not just a mere sentiment, but is the ultimate truth at the heart of creation.” So I absolutely agree that the need to demonstrate love (in all its forms) is the ultimate insight, which ought to serve as the ultimate axiom upon which to build a theology that is consistent in logic while rooted in spirituality.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tuesday, September 05, 2006 8:05:00 PM  

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