Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything.

1776, Stephen Hopkins

If this is so, then isn’t one of the most dangerous ideas the idea that ideas can’t be discussed? That’s the kind of idea that affects our ability to understand all ideas, making it a “meta” idea. There are bad ideas, and then there are ways of thinking that limit our access to all other ideas.

Bishop Bill recently talked about an idea that’s got legs at Church, particularly increasing in popularity during the current Church presidency, an idea that’s got a lot of downside in terms of how it impacts family relationships. There are ideas like this that are just one off, easily discarded if they don’t suit, and then there are ideas that affect every other idea we encounter. There are two ideas that I’ve been hearing at Church that fundamentally alter our ability to comprehend and live the gospel, changing the gospel to a completely different thing if we accept these notions:

  • That human authorities are infallible guides to God’s will; loyalty to them and their ideas must trump our own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and values. (For more on this one, see my post on being “Church Broke”)
  • That our beliefs and values should not change. That defending our existing understanding is more important than examining these ideas, discarding those that are in error, and replacing them with better understanding.

These are meta ideas, and they affect all other thought processes. The restoration, according to Joseph Smith, was a byproduct of the idea that human religious authorities were in error, that they contradicted each other, that they understood and represented God’s will imperfectly. He did not preach that we should substitute those “bad” preachers with other human preachers who would be “good.” He didn’t set himself up as an infallible human preacher. He demonstrated that if we cut out the middle man, we could seek and obtain our own personal revelation, develop our own relationship with God, and improve our own understanding of God’s will until we eventually attained Godhood. He was willing to try and discard ideas without creating a permanent attachment to them. Unfortunately, many of his successors did not take the same approach, instead preaching the infallibility of their own ideas and requiring total fealty to their authority rather than an open-minded truth-seeking approach to religious and spiritual knowledge.

If you see the gospel as a personal quest to understand truth, a journey of personal growth toward perfection and enlightenment, you get a complete different experience than you do if you see the gospel as a blueprint of right ideas handed to you from an authority who must be obeyed and followed with exactness.

Obviously, if you think you have to search things out for yourself and not just accept whatever you are told, you are going to make mistakes. Your ideas might not always be right. They might even be worse than what the fallible human leaders are giving you; your mistakes will almost certainly be different than the mistakes of the fallible leaders. It’s a troubling trend that as a faction of Church members (many who are right wing) have disagreed with the Church president’s counsel to wear masks and get vaccinated against Covid, but the criticism many of them are facing is that they should obey the Church authority, that we have prophets so we don’t have to make our own decisions, and we should trust and do whatever Pres. Nelson says because he’s both a doctor and a prophet. While I agree that mask-wearing and Covid vaccination is necessary to curb the ongoing pandemic, I don’t agree that we should be proponents of a bad “meta” idea in furtherance of this aim. Pres. Nelson can be wrong, both as a doctor and as Church president. Like all of us, he has to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. He can only do the best he can do as a human being, just like the rest of us.

Interestingly, while the Pope has encouraged all Catholics to be vaccinated, Catholicism allows them to refuse the vaccine on religious grounds because all vaccines were at some point beneficiaries of stem cell research. Some Catholics, despite the Pope’s decree that the vaccine is far enough removed from the stem cell research and far too beneficial to society to be set aside, will feel differently, and their moral autonomy is respected as a tenet of Catholicism. They can object on religious grounds, even though their Church does not agree with the specifics of their objection. The Catholic Church believes that each person has the right to his or her own unique moral beliefs. The Pope’s opinions are not binding on them. Even if their own ideas are wrong, they are not punished for their unwillingness to cast aside their own ideas in favor of those of His Holiness. By contrast, recent changes to our Church’s handbook have just expanded to include disagreement over policies as grounds for a charge of apostasy. That’s just . . . yikes.

Being allowed to hold wrong ideas is important because we all hold wrong ideas. Right now, you have some beliefs that are wrong, and so do I. Eventually, hopefully, we will discard those ideas when we discover that they are wrong. We might even replace them with other wrong ideas. After all, we are only human, doing the best we can with the information we have, and our very human tendency to sort new information in biased self-reinforcing ways. Pres. Nelson also has wrong ideas. He’s a human being, not a god. Maybe gods, as evolved humans, can also still be wrong.

The second meta-idea I mentioned above is the idea that we should not discard our wrong ideas because it’s more dangerous to change our beliefs than it is to believe something that’s wrong. We don’t need to defend our wrong ideas. We need to let them go when we discover they are wrong. That’s the opposite of defending them. Our ideas aren’t who we are. We evaluate ideas as we encounter them; they aren’t our identity. They are like pretty pebbles we find on the beach and put in our pockets. If we discover that instead of a pebble, we accidentally picked up a polished turd, hopefully we would be willing to set it back down, not force ourselves to carry it in our pockets for the rest of our lives, fighting anyone who points out that the pretty rock we found is really a turd.

There are ideas in the Bible that are both wrong and immoral, most notably ideas about genocide and death penalty punishments. There are cultural ideas about marriage and the role of men and women that we consider cultural artifacts from a far less enlightened time. There are prohibitions on food and rules about society and personal behavior that we no longer espouse. We don’t blame the parents of someone born with a disability for having sinned. We don’t consider witches to be worthy of death for divination. We don’t sacrifice animals or our own children to appease a jealous god. We have learned to discard ideas that aren’t useful, true or good when it comes to our religious texts. Why is it so painful to do the same when it comes to the religious ideas we are taught by living leaders or the ideas in our manuals or handbook that are wrong? As recently as 2010, the manuals used to teach our young men and women included racist counsel against miscegenation. Our teachings have also evolved on whether homosexuality is a choice or not.

It’s important to discard ideas that are wrong. Clinging to the idea that we can’t discard wrong ideas is, well, a REALLY BAD IDEA, one that makes us more prone to being wrong the longer we hold to it, until all that’s left are these fossilized wrong ideas that we are defending for no good reason.

  • Do you see examples of these two meta ideas in your ward or elsewhere within the Church?
  • Are there other “meta” bad ideas you can think of in our current Church culture?
  • How do we evolve past these meta bad ideas?
  • Can you think of some good “meta” ideas that have been taught by the Church?