Sunday Talk: On Understanding

This past General Conference, Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “Our purpose as we seek to learn and to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ must be to increase faith in God and in His divine plan of happiness and in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice and to achieve lasting conversion. Such increased faith and conversion will help us make and keep covenants with God, thus strengthening our desire to follow Jesus and producing a genuine spiritual transformation in us—in other words, transforming us into a new creature, as taught by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians.4 This transformation will bring us a more happy, productive, and healthy life and help us to maintain an eternal perspective.”

He proceeds to go into great detail about the various ways we can learn and teach other people. Parents teaching children. Members learning from others by example. Overcoming instances where what is taught is rejected or ignored. As a professional librarian, I can relate, and I have more than a little to say on the subject of teaching and learning. 

A case in point: academic librarians deal primarily with a thing we call “information literacy.” It’s our goal to help students get to the point where they can find, evaluate, and use information effectively in their lives. I spend a good chunk of time at work finding research for other people. I’ve done it so often and in so many different disciplines by now that it’s second nature to me. I can figure out keywords on the fly and jam them together in the right way to find just about anything. When people come to the desk asking for help, however, I can’t just breeze through the search the same way I would if I were doing it on my own. Simply finding them the information they need isn’t as useful as teaching them how to find it on their own–not if I want to make them information literate. To do that, I have to go through the same search basics every time. Not because the students are slow learners, but because it’s a new experience for each new student.

One of the reasons I’ve gotten so good at searching is because I’ve taught the basics to other people so many times. I’ve used all sorts of different search topics and stumbled through the different databases, learning from experience which are useful in which instances. Before you can teach someone, it’s best to know the material thoroughly. They’ll still ask you questions you don’t know the answer to, however, no matter how well prepared you are. It’s okay to admit when you don’t know the answer right away. We’re human. No one is omniscient, no matter how much some people would like you to believe that.

In the church, I think we sometimes would like to know more than we actually do. We don’t just believe something. We know it. And while there are certainly instances in the gospel that we can know, there are other areas where I think we try to take this principle too far. I know prayer works, because I’ve used it and seen its effects. I know God exists, because I’ve prayed to Him, felt His love, and seen His hand at work in my life and the lives of others. I believe the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I believe we are led by a prophet today. I believe in Christ. I know following the Word of Wisdom has helped me live a healthier life. I know following church teachings has enriched my life.

When I’m teaching students, I’m open with the things I don’t know, because I’m confident I have the tools I need to be able to fund the answers, and I want them to have that same confidence. In church, my goal is the same. Do I know the answers to all of life’s questions? Definitely not. I know we like to claim that we have such a great understanding of where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going, but I would argue that our understanding, while perhaps relatively more robust compared to some other religions, is still quite shallow. We know where we’re going? Okay. Where, exactly? What will it look like? What will we do there, precisely? Where will we live? How will our days be filled? Will there even be days to fill, or will time be irrelevant? As soon as we get into specifics, the certainty of our knowledge starts to crumble. That doesn’t bother me, however, because I feel like I’m spiritually literate. I have the tools I need to find the answers to the things I need to know, as I need to know them. There’s no need for me to know the exact daily routine of the afterlife. I need to focus on the here and now–on the traits in myself I need to improve to become more Christlike.

I didn’t become information literate or spiritually literate overnight, however. It took time and effort to do both, filled with false starts and frustrations at times.

I’ve been working on doing family history research for my wife’s side of the family. She’s from Slovakia, and the records there have all been digitized. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you can be up to your eyeballs in marriage records from the 17 and 1800s. But not only are those marriage records in cursive that’s sometimes hard to decipher, they’re also in Hungarian, German, Czech, Slovak, or Latin. Worse still, the names change based on the language of the record. What might be Gyrogy in a birth record is Gjrj in the marriage record. Jan could be Johan or Johannis. Last names change spellings, and sometimes nicknames are used instead of last names. When I first looked at those documents, I thought there was no chance I’d ever be able to understand them. However, with practice and familiarity, just about anything can be dealt with.

First, you have to recognize that the records follow patterns. Marriage records tend to stick together, and they’re organized by year. So just because something was in Hungarian and now it’s in Slovak doesn’t mean it’s changed topics. The names of the husband and wife are still in the same places, for example. Figure out the pattern, and you can figure out the page. That holds true in other areas of life as well. With information, if you get to know the ins and outs of one database, you can use that knowledge when you move onto a new one, looking for the underlying structure that helps you know how to navigate something that might seem bewildering at first. Spiritually, we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. Work to improve yourself in one area, and it’s my experience that you’ll find the things you learned here will transfer over when it comes time to learn something new. If nothing else, you’ll know that you can do hard things.

But there are still times when we’ve identified the language, know what sort of record it is we’re looking at, but still can’t make heads or tails of the handwriting. Is that a t or an l? Is that an ink blot, or were they dotting an i at some point? At times like this, I wish I had the original scribe next to me to ask questions–or at least someone who’s familiar with the handwriting.

This reminds me of the story from the New Testament that Elder Soares referred to in his talk.

26 And the aangel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.

27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to aworship,

28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.

29 Then the aSpirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.

30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?

31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

32 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a alamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:

33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.

34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him aJesus.

In this excerpt from the New Testament, the eunuch illustrates one of the quickest, most effective ways of learning: turning to someone else for guidance. Of course, this only works if we’re willing to actually listen to the person we’re turning to. How many of us have had people volunteer information when we’re not looking for it? Or we’ve ignored good information because we thought we knew better?

A few months ago, I was convinced my Prius was having battery issues. When I tried to start the car, it sputtered and stopped, and it was only after letting it rest for a while that it managed to start up at last. Confused and concerned, I did what any self-respecting man of modern thinking would do: I turned to the internet. After a couple of hours of research, I was convinced the car battery was on its last legs, and I made an appointment with my mechanic to confirm my suspicions.

This mechanic and I have had a long work relationship. I’d been taking my cars to him ever since I moved to Maine twelve years ago, and I trusted his opinion. He wasn’t someone who would tell me something was wrong with my car just so he could make some money on an unneeded “repair.” When I described the difficulty I’d been having, he frowned. “Sounds like your battery was drained too much one time, but it’s gotten over it. Did that happen at all?”

Actually, it had. One of my kids had helpfully left the door open overnight, and when I’d gotten to the car in the morning, the light had been on. But the car had still started up, and I didn’t think that explained the new problems. Still, my mechanic was reluctant to look at the issue. “Just drive it for a while, and if it keeps happening, we can take a look.” That wasn’t enough for me. My mind was filled with images of me being stranded in some remote parking lot, and so I insisted he take a look. I’d done all that research, after all. I was practically an expert on the nuances of the electrical system in a Prius by this point. He took the car and checked the battery. It was fine. All my research was wrong, which makes sense, since I’d garnered my knowledge over the course of a couple of hours online, and he had forty years of experience working on cars to base his opinion around.

We follow the same pattern with so many things these days. Medical symptoms. Parenting approaches. Life hacks. It seems there’s always someone online ready and waiting to tell you the answers to all your questions, especially if you’re willing to subscribe to his YouTube channel. And I don’t mean to disparage these resources. They can be invaluable in the right situations, but a five minute YouTube instructional video simply can’t replace a medical degree or a mechanic’s apprenticeship.

So the next question I have is, “Do we do the same thing with our Gospel dilemmas?” In the episode from the Bible, the Ethiopian read something he didn’t understand. He recognized it was beyond his ability to parse out on his own, and that he needed someone to help him make the connections. What would it have been like if, instead of turning to Philip, he had Google or Reddit available as a resource at the time?

To fully understand the implications of that question, it’s helpful to know how Google and other information resources online function. And this is coming from a trained information professional. I’m not just presenting you with stuff I searched out online as I prepared for this talk. Google has a bunch of automated computer programs that go out searching freely available information online. They’re called spiders, and they crawl the web looking for all the latest web pages. When they find a page, they make a copy of that page and store it on Google’s massive servers scattered across the world. 15 of them at last count. Each server storage facility is anywhere from 200,000 square feet to around 1,000,000 square feet in size, every foot packed with servers.

What sets a good search engine apart from a bad one comes down to one thing: algorithms. When you type in a phrase into the search box, Google runs that search on all its millions of servers, looking for where that phrase has appeared on other websites. Just dumping that results list in front of you wouldn’t be very useful, however. Instead, Google runs the results through a series of algorithms to decide what you’re actually looking for, and then it returns what it believes you really want, in ranked order, with the most likely result at the top. 

How does it determine what information is worthwhile and what isn’t? Typically it comes down to the principle of popularity. The more popular a web page is–the more people link to it and visit it regularly–the more likely that page is something useful. Other elements come into play as well (how often the search term appears on the page and where), but at the core of the matter, a Google search results list is a popularity contest.

Of course, knowing what the general population finds useful is only half the story, really. To return even more “accurate” results, Google tries to know as much as much as possible about the person doing the search, not just what’s being searched. What do they like to search for usually? What results do they click on? What political beliefs do they have? Where do they live? Do they have children? Do they like to travel? It uses as much of this information as it can get, and it feeds it all into that same algorithm. So you might think that if two people searched the same phrase that Google would return an identical list of results, you’d be wrong. If Google knows its me, its results will be tailored to me. If I do a search anonymously in Maine and another person does the same search anonymously in California, the results still might be different, because Google knows I’m in Maine and the other person’s in California.

Why does this matter? It matters because people don’t actually look through much of a Google results page. They look at the top three hits, and if what they’re looking for isn’t there, they try a new search. This is further complicated by the fact that Google sells ad space to companies, so often those top few hits has a couple of ads thrown in as well. So your search for medical symptoms ends up connecting you with drug companies that treat those symptoms.

But back to our friend, the confused Ethiopian. If he were to do his search today on Google, passing up Philip’s offer to help him understand, he would instead be connected to the most popular pages on the religious topic he’s focused on. If he were to search out a topic focused on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there’s a fair chance the most popular pages are far from the most uplifting ones. This matters in so many ways, because we as a society are training ourselves to turn to the internet for answers. We need to be able to tell the source of the results lists so we can discern between truth and error. Google won’t do that for us. For that, we have the Spirit. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t use the resources available to us when we’re trying to find answers to questions that we have, but rather that we should be cautious and cognizant of the ways those resources might try to influence us. Don’t forget that there’s far less difference between Google and a used car salesman than Google would have us believe. We wouldn’t go to a used car salesman to ask what sort of car we should buy, and if we did, we’d be sure to take what he said with a whole box of salt.

So what’s the best way for us to come to understand the Gospel? For me, I learned over time, through the example of my family and friends. The biggest key has always been prayer, the scriptures, and the words of modern day prophets. My testimony and understanding of the Gospel has increased as I’ve prayed about its truthfulness and applied its teachings in my daily life. In my experience, the Gospel is not difficult. There are no trick questions. God isn’t trying to trip us up with confusing commandments.

Yet sometimes I encounter people within the church who espouse a different approach. They’ll delve into the nooks and crannies of speeches and papers written by past church leaders. I can understand the appeal, feeling like there’s some hidden truth waiting for those members who are diligent enough to go looking for it. And indeed, Paul speaks in 1st Corinthians about the need to first be fed with the equivalent of doctrinal milk before you’re ready to graduate to meat. In General Conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook addressed this train of thought, referring to it as a modern day equivalent of “looking beyond the mark.” In the Book of Mormon, Jacob speaks of the stiffneckedness of the people. “they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall.”

Elder Cook states, “While there are many examples of looking beyond the mark,25 a significant one in our day is extremism. Gospel extremism is when one elevates any gospel principle above other equally important principles and takes a position that is beyond or contrary to the teachings of Church leaders. One example is when one advocates for additions, changes, or primary emphasis to one part of the Word of Wisdom. Another is expensive preparation for end-of-days scenarios. In both examples, others are encouraged to accept private interpretations. “If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark.”26

Speaking of important doctrine, the Lord has declared, “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me.”27 When we elevate any principle in a way that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or take a position contrary to or which exceeds teachings of Church leaders, we are looking beyond the mark.”

There’s a reason the same principles are stressed time and time again by the speakers in General Conference. It’s because while they might seem easy to learn, they’re obviously incredibly hard to understand to the point that we actually follow them fully in our lives. I don’t believe God is squirreling away nuggets of truth, hiding them for those few members willing to go on a DaVinci Code level quest to find the Real Answers. When we are judged, it will not be by whether we knew where Adam-ondi-Ahman was or where exactly the Nephites lived. It will be on our understanding and application of gospel principles. Faith. Repentance. Charity.

When Denisa and I decided to have children, we quickly realized we had no clue what we were doing. Yes, each of us had somehow successfully been raised to adulthood, but neither of us really had any idea how it had happened, especially in those first few years. There’s a limit to a good memory, after all. To try and get a handle on how we should approach this new task, we turned to our friends and family. Not just anyone, however. We took a step back and thought about those couples we knew who had children we admired. We wanted to have children that would be like those examples, and so we asked those couples for tips and guidance on how to raise good kids. Their advice has worked well for us over the years.

We can follow that same pattern in the Gospel. When you face a trial or trouble that you haven’t handled before, look for people who might have faced it already and came through it well. I know there’s a strong vein of good old fashioned New England independence running through many of you, but this isn’t something you need to get through on your own. Just as you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t, at least) turn to Google to to diagnose a medical problem, you don’t need to use a search engine to get answers to spiritual dilemmas. Find those people you respect and admire and relate to, and talk to them. Ask for advice. That advice can’t replace the promptings of the Spirit, but it can often guide us to answers we wouldn’t have found on our own. God works through people, and each of us often needs a Philip to enlighten our understanding.

Perhaps one of the best parts of this approach? It strengthens everyone involved. I know I learn more when I teach someone else than when I taught myself or learned something the first time. You don’t need to feel like you’re bothering someone. How many people could have saved themselves hours or years of struggle if they just would have asked for help in the first place? I’m so grateful Denisa and I asked for advice when we began to be parents, just as I’m grateful we asked for help when we bought a house, bought a car, picked a career, and did so many other challenging things. If I was reliant on just learning by the mistakes I personally made, I would be lightyears behind where I am now. It’s so much easier and less messy to let yourself take the short cut and learn from others.

Proverbs 3:5 aTrust in the Lord with all thine bheart; and lean not unto thine cown dunderstanding.”

2 Nephi 32:3 aAngels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you,bfeast upon the cwords of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will dtell you all things what ye should do.

4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye aask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.

I bear my testimony that as we ask our Heavenly Father for help and understanding, we shall receive it. Sometimes it will be through the Spirit and revelation. Sometimes it will come to us through the conversations and love of others. But we don’t have to do it alone. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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