“The Boat Is Not the Shore”: Shallow Thoughts on Gospel Deepities

“The boat is not the shore.”

I say that a lot, usually in meetings. I have no idea what it means. It comes from the misremembered title of a book I saw on a shelf once. I use the expression, not because it conveys meaning, but because it sounds smart. Whenever I say it, people start nodding vaguely while mulling it over. People usually don’t want to admit that they don’t get it, so they start filling in the blanks themselves. Watch:

Elders Quorum President: “Bretheren, we only have one Sunday left this month to get our home teaching done. Let’s lengthen our stride and get busy.”

Me: “Are you saying that, if I happen to only be able to do it on the first of next month, I should just stay home because it won’t count?”

EQP: “The Lord has asked us to visit the house of each member once a month.”

Me: “True, but remember, the boat is not the shore.”

EQP: [Nods knowingly and goes on with the lesson, vaguely thinking that I might have a point since, as anyone can see, boats and shores are completely different things that only an idiot would confuse.]

“The boat is not the shore” is a perfect example of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls a “deepity,” or a profound-sounding statement that, upon further reflection, contains only a banal truism and a meaningless assertion. “Love is just a word,” Dennett suggests, is a deepity. On the surface it is completely true. “Love” is a word. But so, he points out, is “cheeseburger.” “The boat is not the shore” is even better because it sounds vaguely Oriental, which means bonus points for sounding like Confucius.

Deepities thrive in religious contexts, especially in contexts that mitigate against the joint discovery of truth and become something like liturgical repetition masquerading as religious instruction. Take, “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth.” Who could deny such an obviously true statement? Nobody wants a God whose glory is stupidity. But as a meaningful assertion, it doesn’t really assert much. “Intelligence is good,” perhaps, but we knew that. “To be learned is good if one hearkens unto the counsel of God,” of course. But “woe unto the learned who think they are wise.” Deepities one and all.

It is pretty easy to mine scriptures for deepities. My favorite, perhaps, is “the Lord’s house is a house of order.” I mean, who could disagree with that? But the last three times I have heard this deepity invoked, it has been used to assert 1) that the government has no business giving people food stamps (because that is not what “a house of order” would do); 2) that public education is a form of godless socialism (only private houses can be “of order”); and 3) that concealed weapons should be allowed in every conceivable building (because nothing says “order” in a house like a handgun).

The first deepity I remember, I think, is the phrase “we shall be judged by the records kept.” I’m not sure where I first heard this one, but, when I became the Deacons Quorum Secretary in the Tulsa First Ward, I was perpetually paranoid that one of my quorum members was going to be kept out of the Celestial Kingdom because I forgot to record his attendance at priesthood meeting. Later in life, though, another deepity neutralized my anxiety: we don’t need to worry too much about clerical errors, because “God will make everything right on the morning of the First Resurrection.”

Or consider the recent conference favorite, “doubt your doubts.” What could be more profound than that? But does one just doubt one’s doubts? Or must one doubt the doubting of one’s doubts too? What happens if one doubts the doubting of one’s doubtful doubts? The formulation itself would suggest a posture of fundamental skepticism (i.e. doubt everything). But that is exactly the opposite of what is actually being said, which is more like “don’t doubt anything.” The phrase itself, though, is classic deepity–it sounds so wise and so plausible that we can hardly imagine it not being true, whatever it means.

Deepities are the cheesecake of serious contemplation: smooth, delicious, filling, and virtually devoid of nutritional content. They sound profound, but they actually relieve us of the obligation to think stuff through. They are not arguments, but they can be used argumentatively–with other people, but also with ourselves: we use them to convince ourselves that we have been thinking. This can be a useful illusion, and we pretty much all go in for it at some time or another. But we have to be careful, for, as everyone who has ever navigated a great river knows, the boat is not the shore.

Comments

  1. Brian Dillman says:

    The map is not the territory just lost all its deepness. Thanks a lot.

  2. Love the concept of “deepities.” But I’m not sure about “the boat is not the shore” being banal. Isn’t that like saying, “The journey is not the destination” or “The means are not the same thing as the ends.” That’s actually a deep thought, not just deep-like. It’s an extension of the thought “The ends justify the means.” With regard to HT, it sounds like it means the HT is just a program to support people. It’s not actually a saving ordinance. tl;dr, don’t get your knickers in a knot if you don’t get it done in a given month.

  3. Yeah, I think “the boat is not the shore” actually is somewhat profound, as Angela says. Way to fail us, Austin!

  4. Deepity or not, I am taking this one. I love to watch conundrums in people’s heads. Thanks for giving me a new one.

  5. Steve, failure is just a weigh station on the road to success. Surely you know that.

  6. Bryan Buchanan says:

    When elephants fight, only the grass suffers. Hat tip: Saved by the Bell.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    I unconditionally love this post with one caveat: I’m not convinced “doubt your doubts” is necessarily a deepity.

  8. Bro. Jones says:

    Michael said: “Steve, failure is just a weigh station on the road to success. Surely you know that.” I think you may have meant “waystation” but the idea of failure being one of those unstaffed, unused truck weighing stations on the side of the interstate is a fabulous deepity that improves on the original.

  9. I think you’ve read “doubt your doubts” a little wrong as well — it is kind of deep when taken in the context of the times in which it was given and in the knowledge of President Uchtdorf’s insight into some of the problems that are driving people out of the Church. It isn’t really saying “don’t doubt anything”; it’s really saying “be introspective” or “strive for intellectual humility — just because you feel like you’ve gained new knowledge about sinister agendas because you’ve researched Church history for 6 weeks on the internet doesn’t mean you should throw away a lifetime of Christian discipleship — be patient and see how things play out” or, more bluntly, “you’re just an accountant from Orem — why the &^%# do you think that you suddenly know something concrete about the intentions of people living and working in the 1800s just because you read a few things that troubled you on the internet”. You know, that kind of thing.

  10. I find that this is a pervasive problem with other people’s thinking.

  11. (Now, I agree with you that a certain sub-segment of Mormon blogs and bloggers — and a substantial portion of our fellow saints in the pews — interpret “doubt your doubts” as a deepity meaning essentially “don’t doubt anything”. As unfortunate as that is, it can’t be laid at President Uchtdorf’s feet.)

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    Also, “the boat is not the shore” sounds like the opposite of asserting that the journey is more important than the destination (which is a thing) and as such is just odd. Nobody points out that the destination is of paramount importance — that’s the common assumption most everyone shares, which makes the assertion of its truth too obvious. Perhaps “the shore is not the boat” comes closer to being a meaningful insight, but admittedly, not close enough.

  13. Aaron Brown says:

    What John said. It’s unfortunate that so many LDS church members latched onto “doubt your doubts” as a proof text that supposedly justifies their prejudices against “doubting” and the doubters that doubt them (essentially reading Uchtdorf’s as saying the opposite of what it said). I took it to mean, “Don’t direct your newfound powers of skepticism in only one direction. Direct it toward your newfound dogmas as much as you do your old ones.” One could quarrel with the advice, I suppose, but it isn’t meaningless.

  14. Delightful. But . . . but . . . would you distinguish the Tao Te Ching (as one quick-to-mind example)? I’ve learned something contemplating “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The unnameable is the eternally real.”
    To be fair, I would be loath to explicate, and the more I think about it the less likely I am to use the line in any kind of argument or declaration.

  15. I see some truth in this post, but not all things which are true, are useful.

  16. On the Uchtdorf quote, most members quote that incorrectly. He never said “doubt your doubts.” He said “first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” That’s good counsel – whether we’re speaking of religious faith, scientific faith, or the faithfulness of a spouse. But it also does not mean what many members take it mean; namely, that one should never doubt. Uchtdorf allows that doubt can be good. Our faith can be misplaced and there is a time to doubt that faith. But that time comes after one has first critiqued the motives for the doubts themselves.

  17. Yes, excellent observation, Dave K.

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    Delightful. But . . . but . . . would you distinguish the Tao Te Ching (as one quick-to-mind example)?

    Christian, I believe it can be summed up in an anecdote:

    Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

    Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish—how do you know what fish enjoy?”

    Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

    Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish—so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

    Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy—so you already knew I knew when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

  19. Time for a BCC deepity contest!

  20. Love the new vocabulary word.

    It occurs to me that a saying can be a deepity or a true profundity, depending on how it’s used, and whether the speaker or the listener really understands the concepts behind the saying.

  21. I know this to be an eternal principle.

  22. I am still laughing from this article. But I have to disagree with you: I think deepities (is that a word??) can be great. They’re short, easy-to-remember ways to package a complex concept, and they’re a great jumping-off point for further thought. The problem isn’t with the deepity itself (because anything could be a deepity, really) but with using it without ever actually thinking about what it means.

  23. Jack Handey, deepiest of the deep thinkers:

    http://www.deepthoughtsbyjackhandey.com/

  24. I thought you were going to tell us the ‘Old Ship Zion’ was not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Oh well, ‘The menu is not the meal’ I guess.

  25. Can’t believe I’m really the first to say to you, “Michael, row the boat ashore.”

  26. Ha Ha Ha-llelujah!
    Ardis FTW.

  27. I love the fact that so many are finding deep meaning in the deepities that you have thrown away. Just goes to show you that the Spirit can make lemonade out of lemons – and doesn’t even need water or sugar!

  28. Left Field says:

    “Professor, why don’t we build a boat to carry us off the island and back to civilization?”

    “Gilligan, let’s not forget: The boat is not the shore.”

  29. I agree with every fiber of my being.

  30. Dave,

    “On the Uchtdorf quote, most members quote that incorrectly. He never said “doubt your doubts.” He said “first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.””

    The quote you mention is definitely right, but I don’t think it’s good advice for a scientist. Following Kuhn, it is precisely by NOT doubting many of its foundational assumptions and methodologies that “normal science” can ever make any progress.

    Placed in historical terms, Uchtdorf’s advice is exactly what Descartes failed to follow in his foundationalistic attempts at systematic doubt: Let’s doubt every single thing that we can and reject everything that can be doubted… starting (he forgot to add) with the idea that we ought to doubt every single thing we can and reject everything that can be doubted. If he and his many, many followers had followed Uchtdorf’s council, the enlightenment probably would have played out very differently, if at all.

  31. This sentence struck home for me…”Deepities thrive in religious contexts, especially in contexts that mitigate against the joint discovery of truth and become something like liturgical repetition masquerading as religious instruction.”

    I have long felt that the scriptures, the gospel, the speeches and writings of our General Authorities–all of which are emulated and copied and repetitively used locally are replete with these “deepities.” I have been referring to them as om chants, genuflecting rhetoric, or purposely ambiguous hyperbole. But, deepities casts a more sarcastic shade on them.

  32. Arthur Fruend says:

    Jeff G points out why all deepities are banal or soon becomes such. A deepity is offed by the author as shorthand for a meaningful message that can change lives. However, a deepity, by its nature offers itself for instant proof texting by those unwilling to ponder and fully understand the whole message. By the time it is passed along twice out of context it means nothing. This is why “all that is gold does not glitter.”

  33. Re: “doubt your doubts”:

    http://existentialcomics.com/comic/93

  34. Jeff G, let me give an example for science. Years of studies have lead to the conclusion that gravity on earth is 9.80665 m/s2. Now, say your machine gives a reading of 14.6639 m/s2. I would recommend you doubt your machine before doubting the standard. But, after that, it’s possible that the machine is ultimately correct and years of science failed to account for something.

  35. “the glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth.” Who could deny such an obviously true statement? Nobody wants a God whose glory is stupidity. But as a meaningful assertion, it doesn’t really assert much.”

    I think you missed the boat (or shore) on this one. The real gem in that scripture is the definition of intelligence as being “light and truth”, rather than knowledge or learning or the opposite of stupidity. It has always bothers me that it’s quoted mainly as a support for getting some “good book learnin’.”

  36. Fairly picayune. What’s next, “I hate the singsong entonenation some Sisters use during their talks”?

  37. I love this post. (Deepity)I know it to be true.(/Deepity). But like others, I’m not convinced that “the boat is not the shore” is a Deepity. It is a metaphor, and has the potential to speak volumes, but it must be used in a context that gives it meaning.

    If you do your home teaching visits, but neglect to befriend the home teaching families, you have missed the point of home teaching. You may have sent them a boat, but you didn’t bring them to shore. The boat is not the shore. Except I fumbled the metaphor a bit, so in this case it might remain a deepity.

  38. You’ve messed up a whole bunch of people here, Austin. Repent!

  39. I agree with john f that the “doubt your doubts” comment is not a mere deepity but in fact much more than that.

    But here’s something I think is a deepity: “the sound of one hand clapping.” I know, I know, it’s not a Mormon thing, but still, I think it requires being stoned to be a deep thought.

  40. Can’t tell which way the train went by looking at the tracks.
    He never said it would be easy. He only said it would be worth it.
    And, my favorite….
    Because Jesus.

  41. There is much truthiness to deepities, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

  42. You’ve done an immensely important work here, Austin. Not all heroes wear capes.

  43. And don’t forget to believe your beliefs.

  44. Methinks the OP is the first draft of an essay that Michael Austin will eventually write, titled “Politics and the Mormon Language” (which really would be worth writing, so please do Michael!). Or in any event, the OP reminded of the following passages from the Orwell classic:

    * “…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.

    * “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. … A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.”

    * “You see, he ‘feels impelled’ to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

    * “When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.”

  45. Agreed with the deepity notion. However, I see a clear meaning in “the boat is not the shore.” If I say, “He has a great job, but the boat is not the shore.” This would serve as a reminder that jobs are not financial security, but an illusion of security, just as a boat is an illusion of the sure footing one finds on the dry land. Of course, as I was just sharing my own deepity to my friend, “With deep thoughts, your toes won’t touch the sand.”

  46. Brett Allen, yes! This was what I took the title of this post to mean what the post would be about before reading it.

  47. Brett Allen, I read it the same way. Sure, compared to being in the water, a boat is very stable and secure and dry. But compared to the shore, it is unstable and exposed and unsure. Sometimes we think that because we have gained or improved a little, we are now complete, when in fact there is a much better place ahead if we just keep moving forward.

  48. Sometimes meaning is found in the art other times the art is in finding meaning.

  49. The most annoying business-speak deepity from my days in Corporate America was “it is what it is.” This could be used to hide ignorance and excuse inaction endlessly. Somehow it often seemed to be accompanied by a cousin deeepity–no, make that a deputy deepity–of “perception is reality.” That way the it of it is what it is didn’t even have to be based in reality, but mere perception or assumption, making life much easier for those working hard to sound wise.

  50. Deepities are the cheesecake of serious contemplation: smooth, delicious, filling, and virtually devoid of nutritional content. They sound profound, but they actually relieve us of the obligation to think stuff through.

    Ah, but you just showed that deepeties can serve as perfect devices for rumination after all. I think what matters more is how a deepity as a speech act is employed. Is it used to terminate thought and end conversation? (Sometimes that can come as a needed relief.) Is it offered as something to weigh and mull over? Some of the scriptural deepities you identify here can serve as launchpads for greater things!