“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.