Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Delusions of Candor

“Truth” is a core concept in Mormonism. Just think how often you hear one of these statements. 1) “I know the Church is true” 2) “I testify to the truthfulness of the gospel” 3) “I know the Book of Mormon is the truest book on earth” 4) “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet” and 6) “I know President Monson is a true and living prophet.”

Before I mislead you, this post is not about whether Mormonism is true or not. It’s about what, if anything, Mormon use of the words true/truth/truthfulness have to do with truth’s synonym – candor.

For purposes of this discussion, I use the following definitions.

Truth (as understood by Mormons)

The LDS conception of truth does not fit any of the categories in which it has been discussed in the Western philosophical tradition…In the Western philosophical tradition…some have said [truth] is the correspondence with reality that true statements possess…[F]or Latter-day Saints, as their scriptures and everyday discourse reveal, truth is not primarily a matter of the correctness of ideas or statements...Though they do speak of the truth of statements, they most often use the word "truth" to signify an entire way of life—specifically, the way of life exemplified, prescribed, and guided by Jesus Christ.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism Volume 4, title, TRUTH.

Truth (as understood generally)

A universal, unchanging, provable fact that is applicable to all persons and all things at all times.


A frank, open speech or expression

For me, truth and candor are hard to separate. When I ask a question, I consider the response to see if it rings true. I assess not only veracity, but openness and frankness. An assertion may be technically correct, but if it’s not forthright, it may also lack truth. If I sense that I am only getting part of the story, I can’t help but question the truthfulness of the speaker. Consider: Once in an institute class at the University of Utah, we studied the violence committed against Mormons in Missouri in the late 1830s. I asked my instructor why Mormons had been so poorly treated. He responded that it was because of their beliefs. I asked if there was more to it than that. He repeated it was because of their beliefs. Feeling that was not the whole story, I asserted that there must have been more going on. He repeated yet again, somewhat testily, that it was persecution based on their beliefs. His tone let me know the discussion was over. While his answer may have not have been false, it was far from true. His refusal to give a candid and thorough answer was a type of falsehood.

For a church that relies so heavily on truth, I often find candor in short supply. Sometimes individual members will discuss their ideas and feelings about the Church openly and honestly, but I think most are pretty guarded with their thoughts. And institutionally, official presentation and communication focus more on indoctrination than discourse. Questioning is frowned upon and exploration of sensitive topics is discouraged.

The challenge for me is that my concept of truth is much closer to that used outside the Church. In the Church, truth is a path or a way of life as opposed to a matter of correctness of ideas. When I suspend my conventional idea of truth and consider the Church approach, Mormon truth claims make a lot more sense. But when I view Mormonism with the general definition of truth, church rhetoric and curriculum seem selectively propagated.

This leads me to the central question of this post: Are the Mormon Church and its members candid in the pronouncement and discussion of their beliefs, history and practices? I think the answer is no but reasonable minds can differ and I am open to differing conclusions.

If I view the truth as provable fact, the answer is no, the Church is not candid. The Church presents a glossy image of itself. For the most part, it discloses only facts that cast it in a favorable light. It rarely acknowledges flaws or mistakes. If Church leaders themselves have doubts, you don’t know it because they don’t voice such reservations. The Church makes a case the way a lawyer would – it presents information that is favorable and downplays the rest. The movie Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration is an example of this. It presents an idealized picture of Joseph Smith with nary a mention of his problematic actions like polygamy, treasure hunting and secrecy.

The Church’s lack of candor is particularly notable when discussing its history. I am not accusing the Church of falsifying the truth; I’m saying that its statements, curriculum, and communications generally lack openness, frankness and balance. You won’t hear much in Sunday School or in general conference about polygamy, blood atonement, the Adam God theory, or the priesthood ban.

However, if you consider the issue of candor in the context of the Church’s definition of truth, then the Church fares much better. If truth signifies a way of life – one prescribed and guided by Jesus Christ -- then Church pronouncements and curriculum are arguably pretty straightforward. The Church advocates its version of how to discover truth through living a Christ-like life and downplays or omits information that it thinks will detract from its mission. With this framework in mind, one might argue that if the Church were more candid, it might actually cause people to hear less of its Christ-centered message and instead focus on matters which the Church deems superfluous to living a Christ-like life.

That’s quite a stretch for me. If the Church disregards the conventional notion of truth and candor, it subjects itself to a great deal of misunderstanding and runs the very real risk of being seen as deceitful. Acculturated Mormons might get by with a definition of truth that is at odds with its generally accepted meaning, but even members fully versed in Mormon jargon can suffer conviction whiplash when they discover information at odds with what they have been taught in official discourse. And as for outsiders looking in at the church, it’s not hard to see how they can see the Church as disingenuous and even deceitful when the Church opts to use only facts it finds helpful while ignoring the rest.

So I guess what I am saying is that I can understand why the Church and most of its members feel that they seek, share, and possess the truth. But I also see why many outside the Church view the Church’s claim to truth with pronounced skepticism. I hope that we can bear in mind that the Church’s idea of truth can be hard for some insiders and most outsiders to comprehend. And with that realization, we can opt for a more conventionally candid discussion of our history and beliefs.