I was hauling a little tyke around the house the other day, trying to expand his small vocabulary. I pointed out a picture on the wall: “Look, those are flowers.” Well, not really. I corrected myself. “Actually, that’s a picture of flowers.” I trot to the back door window overlooking the garden. “Those are flowers.” Back to the picture: “That’s a picture of flowers.” I’m sure the important distinction is not lost on readers. Funny thing is kids don’t seem to ever get confused by it. I don’t recall any story of taking a kid to the zoo, pointing out an elephant, and getting a reply: “No, papa, an elephant is a small two-dimensional image on a piece of paper, not a huge animal like that thing over there munching on grass.” Likewise, kids don’t get confused by small 3D action figures of lions and tigers when they stumble upon the real thing at the zoo. They get it.
It gets a little more complicated with depictions or models of imaginary creatures. But a unicorn figure or a 3D dragon that a kid plays with get sorted, without any particular difficulty, into the category “imaginary” or “make believe.” Little Josh can be having a battle between a lion figure in one hand and a dragon figure in another hand and, if properly queried, accurately explain that there really are lions, but this is just a pretend lion, and that there aren’t really any dragons out there, and this is a pretend dragon in my hand even though there aren’t any real dragons out there. Again, kids get it. We as humans are naturally capable of distinguishing images from real objects, and classifying some categories of objects as real (such as lions) and other categories of objects as imaginary (such as dragons). Those aren’t fixed categories. At some point just about every seven- or eight-year-old moves Santa Claus from the category “real person who lives up north and delivers presents at Christmas” to “imaginary person who lives up north and delivers presents at Christmas.” Again, kids do this fairly smoothly without much angst. Not-so-little Josh will say, “Oh, now I get it,” not “How could I have been so stupid?!” What is a little surprising in this short summary is how natural and easy these distinctions are to children.
Maybe we lose this ability as adults. Think about things that different adults place in different categories. UFOs. Bigfoot. Homeopathic medicine and the effects of other placebos. Religious objects and categories enter this discussion as well. Let’s avoid Mormonish things for the moment: Healings at Lourdes. Visions at Fatima. Images and depictions seem to persuade adults to classify as real objects many things that you or I might think of as imaginary. I’m sure you’ve seen images, even videos, of UFOs, Bigfoot, angels with wings, or the postmortal Virgin Mary. Images can be treacherous.
So can stories. Think conspiracy theories, which conspicuously lack much or any evidence to support them, but nevertheless attract belief by small groups of fringe devotees, or sometimes go viral and attract belief by millions or hundreds of millions. Now maybe adults don’t actually lose an ability that children have to make these distinctions. Maybe children are good at distinguishing real from imaginary only because the responsible adults in their life quietly guide them to the proper result. And adults don’t necessarily have a reliable guide to help them distinguish real from imaginary, so there are millions of adults who classify UFOs (as stealthy alien spacecraft rather than as strange terrestrial phenomena or secret military craft) and Bigfoot as real rather than imaginary. Adults sort of have to develop their own criteria for making those distinctions. Some of us are better than others.
There is a whole discussion about reality testing to be had here. We each take it for granted that we have a pretty good grasp on reality. Think Mr. Monk: “I could be wrong now. But I don’t think so.” Most people won’t even go so far as to acknowledge they could be wrong. We as humans plainly have the ability to form wildly inaccurate views of the real world. Just think of what humans thought about “the real world” ten thousand years ago. Two thousand years ago. A century ago.
Now let’s get to the Mormon stuff. I’m not going to take the easy approach and invite a conversation about Nephites (real or imaginary?) or golden plates (real or imaginary?). Let’s talk about topics that aren’t quite so emotionally charged and that the average Mormon might waffle on, with some going one way and some the other. First, the Three Nephites. I suspect in the 19th century the idea that Three Nephites were actually roaming the Earth doing good things for good people here or there was fully accepted by many mainstream LDS. I also suspect that in the 21st century that idea is regarded by many mainstream LDS as something like a set of entertaining folk tales.
A couple more examples. Some mainstream LDS believe that LDS garments have a supernatural ability to protect the wearer from physical harm. There are stories that are circulated within LDS circles to support that view. Other mainstream LDS quietly dismiss that idea (plenty of stories to refute the belief) and have different religious reasons for wearing LDS garments. Take another example: Blessing a meal before you eat it. Even for blessing the sacrament, LDS don’t attribute some sort of supernatural transformation of the emblems as some Christians do. But somehow there seems to be an LDS view that blessing a meal does something more for the food than simply offer thanks. We don’t say, “Thanks, God, for this nutritious and very tasty meal before us.” Mormons ask for a blessing, with the sense that God does something to the food on the table. But I’m sure there are some mainstream Mormons who see it simply as a giving of thanks or as a small religious ritual that has some positive effect on the participants.
Here’s the bigger question: What sort of thought process or reality-testing algorithm to modern Mormons use to resolve these “maybe / maybe not” questions? It’s too easy to just wave your hands and say “Science!” because if you are 101% into Science and dismissive of all religious claims, you’re not really in the Mormon conversation. If you’re that person, you have to come at it from the other side of the spectrum and question your own Scientism, not someone else’s religious questions. In the informed Mormon conversation, the question would be: How do you distinguish the science you accept from the science you don’t or the science you regard as informative but nevertheless contingent. And remember, all science is contingent. Any and every science discipline will look different in a hundred years. If you are a 101% Science person, reflect on the fact that a hundred years from now many or most of your Sciency beliefs will be rejected and replaced by something else.
I’ve used the term “mainstream Mormons” here because I imagine most W&T readers cluster on one end of the Mormon belief spectrum and are likely to view Three Nephites, supernatural garments, and enhanced food from a blessing prayer as “imaginary” rather than “real.” The point is that these are topics where the average member might fall either way. Imagine the conversation to be had in an adult Sunday School class if you asked, “What exactly happens to the food when you offer an LDS blessing on the meal before eating it?” I cannot imagine an LDS manual offering “Well, nothing really” as a valid response. But some members of the class might offer that answer.
So: How does the average Mormon do reality testing? Since something like 60% of active Mormons accept The Loser Donald Trump’s Big Lie, you might reply that the average Mormon doesn’t really do any reality testing. I admit my sense of faith or confidence in the average Mormon’s judgment or rationality has taken a hit over the last year or two. I suspect some readers may have, at some point, switched their classification on one of these topics from real to imaginary, or even from imaginary to real (I expect to hear a UFO story or two in the comments, maybe even a Bigfoot encounter). What thought process did you go through? What algorithm did you use? Or can you even explain why you changed your mind? Sometimes people just wake up one morning and find that a category has flipped, without ever understanding why.