August 19, 2009

"I would not give up trusting God"

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 1
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In this installment, Greg more fully describes what he means by 
"consecrating his brain" and how it interacts with his 
scholarship. Greg also discusses how his skepticism 
interacts with his faith in the gospel.  

LifeOnGoldPlates: Talk a little bit about what it means to you to "consecrate" your brain. Where did you get the idea, what does it mean, how does it affect your research?

Greg Smith: The name for the concept just came to me.1 I thought it was kind of a crude way of putting what I was trying to describe, and tried to think of a more elegant label, but couldn't. But it seems to have a certain resonance with others that I hadn't intended.

To consecrate anything, to me, means to be willing to give it up. One hands it back to God, and one must regard it as really, truly gone. To consecrate anything is to cease clinging to it, to cease regarding it as "mine."  If I get to keep it, it is only on God's sufferance. It's his, and he can call for it at any time.2

So, in the case of plural marriage, when I say I decided to "consecrate my brain," what I mean is that I was willing to give up my need for answers. I was willing to go on and do what I'd covenanted to do without answers, without a resolution to my concern(s) in an intellectual sense. I wasn't willing to walk out on my relationship with God and Christ over the issue.

LoGP: Some might say such an approach means you have decided up front to excuse Joseph Smith or the Church from any "evil."

GS: No, that's precisely the point. The "consecration" of the brain was not a decision to refuse to accept a negative answer. It was, rather, to acknowledge—as I felt I had to do at the outset—that there might well be no good answer, or that Joseph might have made a terrible mistake through either good motives or bad. To consecrate my brain was, for me, to tell God that such things didn't matter, and that I was willing to be thought foolish, misguided, ill-informed, unable to 'handle the truth,' etc. It was a renouncing of the need of an answer—ever. I would give up trusting Joseph if I had to, but I would not give up trusting God.

I hasten to point out, though, that I didn't really think all this through at the time, so what you're getting here is a more reflective, clean-cut version of a decision which I regard as a gift of grace.

LoGP: How do you deal with difficult issues without covering up or misrepresenting information, especially considering you have already "consecrated" your mind?

GS: As I've noted above, the decision to consecrate was essentially a decision to forgo the research and intellectual approach on this topic altogether and forever, if necessary.

Well, to my surprise, I was told very clearly that I didn't need to worry about what I would find or conclude, and to go ahead.  (I was not told what I would find.)  I set out with the idea that there were probably grave mistakes with plural marriage--I've since decided that this wasn't the case, by and large. (I don't regard my experiences as some sort of divine approval of my conclusions—they could all be wrong. I was simply told not to worry that this effort would cost me my relationship with God.)

It was the risk you describe, and my own fear of potentially misreading or misrepresenting (for my own purposes or peace of mind) the truth, that led me into the consecration scenario. Ironically, by the decision to consecrate, I got back what I wanted, and got it in a better way. Because I was assured that whatever I found or decided wouldn't threaten my spiritual well-being, it made me far more fearless than I think I would have been. The biggest thing at stake was no longer my spiritual well-being or commitment; at best the only thing at risk was my ability to understand what was going on. But, I'd already renounced any claim on understanding anyway—so that was no longer a particularly scary thing.

I'm sure I still have my biases, as we all do, but the fact that I've reached conclusions at variance with my initial biases suggests to me that I've controlled for them as well as I can. Beyond that, others will have to judge if I have anything to offer.

This is a long, round-about way of saying that the decision to "consecrate my brain" made me much less likely to misrepresent or cover-up, because the material—whatever it said—was no longer a threat.

So, I got what I would have most wanted out of it—but, to get it, I see now that I had to give it away and mean it.

LoGP: You call yourself a skeptic of sorts. so how does that play into your faith claims about revelation, etc.?

GS: Many of my encounters with God—especially the first ones—have been driven by skepticism. That is, by a realization that what is being claimed is pretty incredible, even implausible. Angels? Gold plates? God talking to farm boys?

As far as I can tell, I've approached those questions and issues with enough intellectual integrity to say, "This could very well not be true. And, if it isn't, I'm going to have to adjust my life accordingly."

But, it has been repeatedly amazing and humbling to me that God seems to know what it will take to convince me, and he gives it to me when necessary. The only thing that I can say to my credit about that is that my skepticism cuts both ways—I realized it could well be false, and I'd have to change my life if it was. But, I was also willing to do whatever I was told to do if it was true. Its a humbling thing and I don't discuss the details much simply because it might seem like bragging, which is the very last thing it is. C.S. Lewis had a line that always resonated with me on this type of thing:
[God] and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its "Look at me" and "Aren't I a good boy?" and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to man in a desert.3
Quite simply, God burned the truth of the Book of Mormon and his existence into my doubting heart and rationalist soul. After I was recovering from that experience, I asked God, "Why me? Why did you tell me?" Now, this may sound strange, but I swear he laughed. Out and out laughed. Sort of an affectionate chuckle. And, the thought came into my mind as powerfully as if someone had spoken it: "Don't you understand yet? If I'll tell you, then I'll tell anyone."

So, the only attitude revelation has given me toward other people is a conviction that it really is there for the asking. When people tell me they've tried and haven't gotten it, I don't have an explanation for that. All I can suggest is that you be certain that you are truly committed to doing everything and anything he tells you to do if you get an answer. You may have to, as Jesus said, count the cost and be sure you are willing to pay it.4 And, I try to offer whatever comfort and hope I can by saying that I have it on very good authority that if God answers me, he'll answer anyone.

To bring the question full circle, though, I see now that the decision to "consecrate my brain" was a spiritual step, so to speak. It is one thing to be a skeptic and to get answers that are utterly convincing. It is another thing to say, "Even if I don't get them—ever—I will trust the relationship built on what has gone before."

Which is again a long way of saying that unless one's skepticism insists that there cannot be revelation, then it is impossible to be skeptical about it when one receives it and it is utterly unexpected and utterly beyond what I had thought it might be. This will likely persuade no one else, but it did persuade me.

Nephi's vision of the tree of life has always spoke to me in this regard.5There's plenty of pointing, laughing, jeering, and philosophizing going on in the building across from the tree. They have lots of reasons why I might be mistaken about the value of the fruit or the tree--even some very plausible-sounding ones. Except for one thing--I'm standing here with its flesh in my mouth, and the juice running down my chin, and its like nothing in this world.  If Descartes couldn't doubt his own existence because he was in the act of thinking,6 I can't doubt God's existence in the act of tasting. To do so would be absurd. The cries of "Spit it out!  It's poison!" ring pretty hollow. I can see why they might think so. I can't see why I would agree.


________________________________________


In the next installment we will further discuss 
scholarship and faith, also addressing doubt, 
fear, and hard doctrine. If you have a comment 
or question for Greg, please leave a comment.  


FOOTNOTES 

[1]
Greg Smith peripherally discussed "mind consecration" (so to speak) during his 2009 FAIR conference presentation regarding plural marriage. See "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage (but were afraid to ask)" at FAIRLDS.org. The image is adapted from Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace), Stuttgart, 1926. Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine, nlm.nih.gov.

[2]
"Consecration" in LDS thought can refer to a sacrificial offering to God of one's time, talent, or possessions. It means dedicating, offering, or setting something apart for God. Elder Neal A. Maxwell defined "ultimate consecration" as "the yielding up of oneself to God," (See Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002, 36).

[3]
Greg is citing C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (HarperCollins 2001) pp. 127-128.

[4]
See Luke 14:28-33.

[5]
See 1 Nephi 8:26-27.

[6]
The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) coined the phrase "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am," or "I am thinking, therefore I exist") in his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Part 1, article 7.

7 comments:

Papa D said...

Thanks for this. It describes something deeply profound in an amazingly clear way.

Sandra said...

Thank you much for this analysis. I've gone through a version of this experience, although not to the extent Greg has. I appreciate the way you've put this concept in terms so well understood and how it can be applied. I was at the FAIR presentation and was profoundly moved by Greg's comments at the end of his presentation. Thank you for continuing the discussion.

BHodges said...

Thanks Sandra. More to come!

Don Kauffman said...

Blair, this question is actually for Greg.

“I would give up trusting Joseph if I had to, but I would not give up trusting God.”

At this point was your relationship with God & Christ unpinned from you relationship to the LDS Church? If you lost trust in Joseph Smith, why would it be necessary to stay with the organization he founded?

Greg said...

At this point was your relationship with God & Christ unpinned from you relationship to the LDS Church? If you lost trust in Joseph Smith, why would it be necessary to stay with the organization he founded?

It was not unpinned, but I was (I suppose) willing for it to be so if necessary.

My relationship to the Church and Joseph is secondary--it's God and Christ that matter, and that have driven all revelation, improvement, etc. in my life. The Church and Joseph are tools (albeit very useful ones), but not ends unto themselves.

So, I would like to think that I'm always willing to do what I'm told. I've had so many experiences because of and related to Joseph, the Book of Mormon, and the Church, though, that by now I think the chance of God ever changing that is vanishingly small.

But, at the time I was at least willing to entertain the idea if I was required to. As it turned out, I was not.

Gillz said...

These posts are gorgeous...I can't believe I tripped onto this site today. Just last night my husband and I were discussing just this-- what it means to question, inquire, live with uncertainty, and be faithful in the church.

These posts illustrate how the balance can be set. And I love the opening quote about how ultimately all answers to questions link back to "Do I trust Father?" Beautiful.

We've been discussing questioning testimonies (questioning everything, really) with my BYU-I freshman, and it was refreshing this morning to hear their surprisingly fair-minded approach to a healthy inquiry of what could easily become a dogmatic cultural bubble of Mormon 18-year-olds in an all-Mormon campus.

I don't have anything I really want to add or ask Blair or Greg at this point (though I plan to continue to read this series and questions may come later). Right now I just want to express gratitude and empathy from Rexburg, Idaho.

My husband said something last night along the lines of how he knows we've been given the talents (from God) to inquire, to be wise, to be selective in our beliefs so as not to have the wool drawn over our eyes, to see what lies in the shadowed corners that most people cut across, but it's not always clear what God wants us to do with these gifts when church situations (such as the bishop who suggests there is no room for doubt in the church)seem to antagonize our allowance for questioning.

I'm not making sense. But I'm full of appreciation, so take that until I can shape what I'm thinking a bit better.

BHodges said...

Emily, thanks for the response. It's nice to know people have been affected by Greg's perspective. Speaking of doubts, or of uncertainty or whatever people want to call it, I did a two-parter a while back you might like as well.

"Simultaneous Searching and Certainty?"
http://bit.ly/Z9Oz7

"Is Doubt a Sin?"
http://bit.ly/DiicL

I think it was too subtle, but the titles of both posts are questions on purpose.

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