For as long as I can remember, I have had a leaky epiglottis. Even as I started to write this post, some of the hot chocolate I was sipping started going down my trachea, causing me to cough uncontrollably. I’m not complaining too loudly about this physiological quirk—when so many people inherit higher risks for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, I got lucky and only inherited baldness, poor circulation (which causes me to wear gloves 9 months out of the year), and an epiglottis that sometimes makes a weak seal.
Growing up thus with the habit of choking on beverages, I very often heard the phrase “it looks like your drink went down the wrong pipe.” Because of this turn of phrase I envisioned metal pipes in my body (floating in cavernous space), one for food and one for air throughout much of my young life. As I grew up and learned more things, my vision of the two-pipes-theory was corrected and expanded; the original model I had been given was not necessarily incorrect, just too simple to be functionally useful or to mesh with deeper understandings of biology and anatomy. As many of you know, the last few months have been very contentious in the world of Mormonism. I’ve devoted most of my blog time to arguing against the Church’s position on gay marriage and I’ve been in e-mail and phone debates with a few of you about the role of women in society and the Church. Although I am a fierce debater when I want to be (or when I am doing it competitively), I also pride myself on being fairly respectful and even-handed with the other side, conceding points readily, admitting where my argumentation is weakest, and not being purposefully manipulative (although I think I could do it better than some, if I really wanted to). One argument I’ve been hearing a lot of lately, and one that I want to clarify here, is that the gospel is simple.
Elder Caussé gave a rather good talk on this subject in the Sunday morning session of General Conference. He points out that, although God will always work on our level of understanding, and that faith and righteousness do not require a PhD in theology, that God does expect us to constantly be improving our knowledge if we expect to attain salvation. Simplistic, pat answers, laundry lists given during Sunday School (“go to Church, read your scriptures, etc.” given as an answer to every question), or a profoundly weak understanding of scripture or doctrine are good enough for those who are new in the Church, but are unacceptable for members who should have learned more in their time in the Church. I feel that there is the erroneous belief in the Church that a “simple faith”—complete with an understanding which is totally stripped of any nuance or individual opinions—is somehow superior in a gospel or righteousness sense to what those fancy-pants intellectual members believe. If you can’t already tell from my tone what I think about this stance, I would simply like to point out that Christ knew the scriptures on a very deep level and debated it often with the students of the law.
At its most fundamental level, there is an amazingly simple beauty in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith in the doctrines and examples of Jesus Christ can provide the basis of ethical, socially-responsible behavior and can lead to well-adjusted, psychologically-stable development. When followed appropriately, the teachings of Jesus coordinate very well with just laws, many different political systems, and within the confines of different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.
The belief that “the gospel is simple,” however, is currently being used as poetic license to oversimplify complex issues and defend a reductive, reactionary worldview. Even if “the gospel is simple,” ethical, political, or philosophical decisions rarely if ever are. In any case, the self-satisfied, check-and-mate-attitude the Christian right exudes when debating their points is unbecoming, both to reasonable, thoughtful people but also to those who follow Christ’s examples from the scriptures (but not the political movement that has attempted to co-opt His name). Evangelicals might smugly point out that Paul preached against homosexuality, but they must then be able to defend the fact that he also recommended against marriage of any kind. I’m not trying to say that the Bible is too contradictory to serve as a basis for argument, simply that the Bible is an incredibly complex book with a complex history. You will have to forgive me for finding it scary if people believe that the Bible is a word-perfect transcript from the mouth of God, uninflected by history, culture, or the opinions and weaknesses of the individual writers.
When all is said and done, there really are two pipes that my hot chocolate can go down—the trachea or the esophagus. Although further nuance or understanding of the glottal system do not fundamentally change the two-pipe model, they do allow for an understanding why the epiglottis works like it does. If someone were to perform a surgery on my epiglottis to fix my propensity to choke on water, I would demand that they know a lot more about the organ (can I even call it an organ?) than I did when I was six (what nerve innervates it, how it interacts with its surroundings, how surgery might affect it, etc.).
We need to trade in our child-like understanding for a child-like faith. We need to trade in a culture which glories in ignorance for one that seeks to understand everything that God would have us understand. We need to abandon the notion that a testimony of the truth is based on feeling the spirit, rather than having the spirit teach us through our minds and our hearts. We need to come to a fundamentally sound understanding about what the Bible is and what it teaches before we use it as a weapon against societal change. In the long run, such tactics will only lower the credibility of the Bible as a holy book and our Church as a voice of faith and reason. If we collectively make religion a simpler, less well-thought-out alternative to science and reason, we may just find that science and reason will eventually replace religion in the public sphere entirely. There are intelligent arguments and philosophies that can be based upon Christian thought. In as far as Christians insist that the gospel is simple, and thus not worth serious argumentation or analysis, they will continue to fallaciously defend misogyny, racism, homophobia, and theocracy in the name of the "simple" gospel. Important parts of the gospel are undeniably simple; defending bad arguments by an appeal to a tacit orthodoxy, however, is worse than blasphemous--it’s simple-minded and just bad debate.