Loaves and Babies

Half a loaf is better than none. But half a baby is not. The secret to being Solomon is knowing the difference.

I have recently started dividing my work problems into loaves and babies based on whether or not half-solutions will work. Loaf problems are problems where a partial solution is better than no solution at all. Baby problems are problems where partial solutions are worse than no solution at all.

Personnel issues are usually baby problems. If I can only hire one professor, and I have strong proposals from both Physics and Sociology, then I have to decide whether to hire a physics professor or a sociology professor. Pretty much nobody has joint Ph.D.s in physics and sociology, and people come in units of one, so I can’t really hire a half a professor in each discipline. I have to make a choice, and either choice will be better than trying to give each department half of what they want.

Resource issues are often loaf problems. If both Physics and Sociology have asked for $30,000 in their travel budget–the money that faculty use to attend conferences, present papers, go to cool places to conduct research and the like–then I can be pretty sure that both departments would rather have $15,000 than nothing at all.

These examples are pretty straightforward, but people get into all kinds of trouble when they treat loaves like babies and vice versa. For example, I once interviewed for a job teaching writing at a college that required all first year writing classes to be “Argument in Literature.” It was the most bizarre syllabus I have ever seen: it involved reading short stories and poems and looking for syllogisms and enthymemes and generally treating works of art as rhetorical proof texts.

What happened, I discovered, was that the department chair had tried to make everybody happy. When they were planning the course, one group of faculty members wanted it to be a course in rhetoric and argument, and another wanted it to be a standard Introduction to Literature course. So they split the baby in two and created a course that included both argument and literature, but made it almost impossible to teach either one very well. The department mistook a baby for a loaf.

The United States recently closed its doors for a month because (I would argue) its president mistook a loaf for a baby. Rather than approaching the budget process as a negotiation, where both sides could get some of what they wanted but not everything, he laid out an all-or-nothing ultimatum: 5.7 billion dollars for a border wall or I will not permit the government to be funded. It didn’t work out well, and, rather than winning half a loaf, he ended up simply starving the baby and walking away with nothing.

All of these examples, of course, are a prelude to a discussion of religion which, in the course of my life, has gone from the babiest of babies to the loafiest of loaves as I have tried to negotiate the all-or-nothing demands of a religious community that can no longer represent “all” to me but will never represent “nothing.”

In one of the most memorable (and, I would suggest, wrong) arguments that C.S. Lewis makes in Mere Christianity is his famous “trilemma”: “mad, bad, or God”:


I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

The problem with this passage is that it embeds, without proving, the very controversial assumption that every word attributed to Jesus in the New Testament is exactly what Jesus said. One can certainly believe this, but the “foolish people” who believe that Christ was a good-but-non-divine moral teacher generally do not accept the literal, historical truth of every word in the Bible. Lewis, in other words, is trying to create a baby argument by ignoring the existence of a perfectly reasonable loaf.

This is the basic move of all fundamentalisms, which argue that, because God is perfect, the ways that humans understand God–scriptural texts, religious traditions, human prophets–must also be infallible. The two things really have almost nothing to do with each other. It is completely possible to believe that there is a God, that God is perfect, and that human beings can only encounter God through deeply flawed and imperfect media. God is a baby. Everything we know about God comes through loaves.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsians have a long tradition of turning religious arguments that should be loaves (things that can be valuable without being 100% true) into babies (things that must be 100% true or 100% false with no middle ground). I have heard these all my life: the Book of Mormon is the most wonderful and correct book on earth or it is a deception from hell; Joseph Smith was a true prophet in all things or he was a vile deceiver; if one believes in modern revelation, one must accept everything a Church leader says; Mormonism is everything or it is nothing. Ironically, these statements are accepted equally by the most devout Latter-day Saints and the most virulent anti-Mormons. Both sides want them to be babies.

But they aren’t. Or at least I cannot see them as all-or-nothing propositions that one must accept or reject. They all point to a community and a set of beliefs that can have profound, life-changing value without being absolutely true all the time and for every situation. That is how loaves work. You can cut them in half just fine and be nourished by what remains.  

Comments

  1. “The Book of Mormon is the most wonderful and correct book on earth or it is a deception from hell.” Yes, this is a false dichotomy. But, the Book of Mormon is either an ancient historical record or it is not. If Joseph Smith translated it using KJV language and wrote some of the sermons or loosely translated it, the BOM is nonetheless an ancient historical record. If he wrote a fictional narrative, regardless of how inspired he may have been, it is not an ancient record. I agree that people can appreciate the BOM as scripture even if it’s a work of fiction (though I have to admit, the idea that God directly revealed this fictional narrative and instructed Smith to make it seem historical baffles me), but there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground where historicity is concerned.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great metaphor, Michael, thanks.

  3. Olde Skool says:

    Thanks, Dylan, for instantiating Michael’s point. As for me and my house, BOM historicity=asking the wrong questions.

  4. Good stuff, Michael. Dylan, I think you illustrate a loaf which some could take for a baby: “But, the Book of Mormon is either an ancient historical record or it is not. If Joseph Smith translated it using KJV language and wrote some of the sermons or loosely translated it, the BOM is nonetheless an ancient historical record.” Some of the baby people would insist that if JS wrote some of the sermons or translated any of it in any other way than pure dictation from what he saw in the stone, it then necessarily is not an ancient historical record. Personally, I’ll take that as a loaf and be glad to have it.

  5. It almost goes without saying that I’m going to agree and appreciate. Thanks, Michael.
    However, I’m pretty sure the world, including the world of faith, is more complicated than just loaves and babies. Suggesting that that also is a false dichotomy. Without doing any work but just tossing ideas, I start thinking about the prisoners’ dilemma, and Pascal’s wager, and ‘necessary and sufficient’ arguments about sacraments/ordinances.

  6. rebeccadalmas says:

    And yet it has always been thus. Imagine telling Joseph or Brigham no on forty percent of their proclamations to the church as a member in their day. Dogma and doctrine are baby choices, they are not sliceable in the church. What happened to all the folks who openly denied their prophetic power or authority?

    Consider. It’s allowing another person be a special spokesman for God to you and everyone else. This is a baby proposition. I think we do abuse to our own psychologies to pretend otherwise.

  7. Wow. That’s one of the most flagrant drive-bys I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.

  8. One big problem with this argument is that church leaders themselves have created many of those false dichotomies. Now that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they’re quietly trying with, for example, the church essays, to change those. But it is difficult to reconcile that approach with the many official statements made over the years.

  9. Melinda W says:

    That’s a useful way of looking at some of the thorny issues, thank you.

    I’ve taken the Book of Mormon as a loaf issue for years now — I don’t care whether or not it’s historically accurate. The doctrines of Christ and repentance have brought so much value and understanding into my life that it’s historicity is irrelevant to me. So I don’t have to make the “accurate historical record or complete fabrication” decision. It helps me to read it and believe it’s scripture, so that’s what I do.

    Following the Brethren is another issue that’s gone from baby to loaf. I accept that Pres Nelson is a prophet, and he speaks for Christ. But he doesn’t know much of anything about my specific life situation, and so if I get personal direction that doesn’t match exactly what the Brethren say, I go with the personal revelation. I’m talking about issues like callings, family decisions and so forth, not violating any major commandments. I don’t ask the Brethren to micro-manage my life or my opinions anymore.

  10. To be clear, I meant what I said when I said that people can accept the Book of Mormon without accepting its historicity.

    And Ben, drive-bys are what I do best.

  11. Wasn’t your comment Dylan. The one I was responding to has been removed. It was completely off-topic, written by someone non-LDS preaching their new discovery of the Shocking Evils of Mormonism™

  12. Sidebottom says:

    I’d submit that the resurrection of Christ is a baby issue. Perhaps *the* baby issue. It either happened or it didn’t, and if it didn’t it takes the better part of one’s religion along with it.

  13. Flawed argument, but the line “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsians” more than makes up for it. 😀

  14. I’m glad.

  15. I believe in the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon. I believe that eventually the proofs will be found and we will possess a more complete understanding. The details are currently back burner in my life. I have too many more pressing issues I am dealing with. And I know that I never feel the Spirit the way I do when I am reading the Book of Mormon so I am willing to wait for more information before I dismiss any historical claims of Church leaders as not true. I also am willing to wait because of personal experiences that defy logical explanation. I have seen and heard many things that others would mock as untrue. But I was there and I know what I saw, I know what I heard. I cannot replicate the experiences but I can testify.

  16. rebeccadalmas says:

    Paula, why believe in the historical accuracy, why not just believe in the feelings? If what you feel is good, why draw conclusions about the history at all? If you know what you experienced, why not believe that alone, why extend it as evidence of what you cannot know?

    I think these questions are important because there is a cost to belief, and sometimes it extends further than ourselves, and so caution can help protect ourselves and others from harmful messages.

  17. rebeccadalmas, to some it is given to know; to some it is given to believe on the words of those who know. Both are gifts of the spirit. When you encourage someone to reject her gift because it’s one you don’t share or cannot accept, you’re killing the baby. There is a cost to disbelief as well; don’t work to extend that cost beyond yourself.

  18. Ryan Mullen says:

    Sidebottom,

    I can’t say “I know Jesus was resurrected …” I hope He was, but I don’t know that He was. As a result, I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last couple years assessing what it would mean for me personally if the resurrection didn’t happen the way I currently understand it. To borrow the language of the OP, I have not found Jesus’ resurrection to be baby. Even if Jesus’ resurrection was a spiritual witness to his original disciples rather than a physical reanimation of his body, it would still have meaning to me.

  19. Rebeccadalmus, may I ask exactly what claims of historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon you consider harmful to others?
    A few years ago I was reading a blog post by someone who seriously doubted the Church’s claims about the need to do genealogical research or temple work. He considered it a waste of money and effort that did not serve either the living or dead. But because my family was non- Mormon, I had needed to spend much time and money to do mine so I had a lot of experience there. I knew the blogger was wrong. I had seen too much to not know I was receiving help from the world where my ancestors lived as spirits. And I had read too many experiences in genealogical magazines to not know that many others of all faiths had had these same experiences. The dead wanted to be found and were making it known to those of us seeking them. And sometimes their intervention could only be described as miraculous. I received spiritual impressions, i was directed to specific people or places. In one instance I was directed to a private home to borrow the key to the country cemetery gate. The people who kept it asked why I had come. I told them my family name. They asked for my address. A few weeks later I received from them an old obituary, over 60 years old, that one of their ancestors had cut from the local newspaper. It was about my ancestor, not theirs, and provided the confirmation that the father in America was the brother of the family in Canada. Why it had been kept for 60 years among their papers just to be located right after the person needing it knocked at their door can, to me, only be explained by inspiration of God.
    I could have taken you with me to the graves and the churches where I had these experiences. I could describe them to you. But I could not make you have them yourself. No one can intervene between you and God. I can only hope the knowledge that others have received before you will cause you to not lose hope that you can as well.

  20. rebeccadalmas says:

    Paula, there are two general areas of answers to your question. First, there are explicit teachings in the BOM itself that are harmful, like dark skin being a curse, or that righteousness leads to material prosperity, or that rape can take away virtue, or that God commanded his chosen follower to kill incapacitated enemies, etc… Then there are the overall claim that the BOM is a keystone, which goes like this: if it is a true record, then Joseph was a Prophet, thus he restored the church, thus we have living prophets today, thus when President Nelson asks us to stop saying “Mormon,” or says that children who have gay parents cannot get baptised, or even when a bishop claims to have revelation for you, it is not just him but the Savior saying it.

    In other words, the church teaches that if you feel a good feeling when you read the Book of Mormon, then that means the teachings in the book are true, and it also means that the church’s teachings are true.

    I really like hearing about your experiences with geneology. I think it is wonderful to connect to our ancestors, and like you, I agree that Latter-Day Saints are not alone in the desire to connect to them. It sounds to me that you are saying that you have a testimony of geneology that has branched out in a way that is independent of the Book of Mormon, one that is based on your personal experience of the actual work. That to me, is much more robust than saying geneology is good because the church said so. Likewise, it’s significantly more robust that saying the events of the Book of Mormon happened because reading it gives one a good feeling. And it is significantly more robust than the keystone theory that implies that this good feeling proves the book’s veracity which proves prophecy and, overall, proves divine authority. And that is, in my opinion, the most harmful of all, this claim that another person speaks for God to all the world. It creates a framework vulnerable to abuse and unintentional harm.

  21. rebeccadalmas says:

    “rebeccadalmas, to some it is given to know; to some it is given to believe on the words of those who know. Both are gifts of the spirit. When you encourage someone to reject her gift because it’s one you don’t share or cannot accept, you’re killing the baby. There is a cost to disbelief as well; don’t work to extend that cost beyond yourself.”

    Ardis,I can agree with your general point. More than a couple decades ago I was at Temple Square with friends. We were enjoying the interior of the Assembly Hall when, nearby, I wirnessed several adults approach a sister missionary. It very literally reminded my of a pack of hunters, because, one by one, they started asking questions that seemed designed to undermine her faith. The sister began to be visibly upset by the onslought, and my friend intervened gently and firmly, and the sister was very grateful.

    I don’t believe in tearing down, but in building. The point of this BIC post is about framing beliefs differently, so that the loss of one does not result in a catastrophic domino effect. I think it is a healthy approach, even moreso when those who practice nuanced faith can do so openly.

  22. Rebeccadalmus,
    I think you missed the footnotes in both the LDS version of the KJV of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Skin of blackness is a Hebrew idiom having to do with the condition of these people’s spirits, not a reference to their actual skin color.
    A similar statement can be made about the use of the word virtue in the scriptures. The New Testament says that virtue went out of Jesus when the woman who suffered from the issue of blood touched his clothing. Certainly this dies not mean he became unchaste. Virtue at one time meant strength or power. And rape does certainly mean a loss of power to control your own body which is a terrible loss when you consider that the human body is part of the eternal soul. Purity is how we use the word virtue now, but it was not the meaning of the word when the scriptures were written.
    As for the teaching of righteousness leading to material wealth, I believe that is true, although not in the way we envision it today with the prosperity gospel. A society based on righteousness cares for the poor and offers them opportunities to overcome their poverty. A society based on righteousness does not destroy their material culture through war or need to spend decades rebuilding following destruction. I visited eastern Europe in 1995 and witnessed the city blocks still empty in some places almost 50 years after World War II. The people spent decades in poverty because of the unrighteousness of some.
    And I personally believe God is much more willing to pour out healing knowledge on His children when we seek righteousness. I actually believe our attempts at following Him allow Him to bless us with both spiritual and material blessings often through increased knowledge.
    And as for my testimony about genealogy, it goes much further than just that all people can gain by being interested in their ancestors. It includes experiences that taught me these people desire their temple work be done. I just did not feel I should share the stories of what happened in the temple in this place so obviously I did not make my point.
    And the reason I repeated the genealogy experiences is because I have similar ones about the Book of Mormon. I was trying to imply, obviously not very clearly, that my experiences while searching for some ancestors have given me the faith to move forward with the work for all of them. My experiences with the Book of Mormon, which go far beyond just good feelings, give me faith to accept Joseph Smith’s claims as to how he received and translated the plates. I do not claim to have a full knowledge or the answers to all questions. But I belief in the process of seeking answers through exercising faith. I believe strongly in the doctrine taught in Alma 32. And I believe that some day I will know, even if that means correcting some misconceptions I formed while reading.
    As I have grown older, I have needed to accept how far seeing the prophets have been about many of the things they asked me to believe when I was younger and I disagreed with them. They were not correct about everything and did some real damage with their mistakes. But I am choosing to forgive them as I hope they forgive me.
    I have had a powerful and humbling experience lately. My ex-husband died. He was dishonest, manipulative and abusive. And he would not go away, even decades following our divorce. I tried to be patient, then gave up and fought him with the same weapons he used against me. Imagine how I felt when I discovered he suffered from a terrible and untreatable mental illness. And that it had been part of his mother’s family for generations. I missed the truth because I did not seek far enough for it. I missed my opportunity to get him to a mental hospital before he did the damage he did. Because I did not pray hard enough or seek far enough. Do not make my mistake. Ask until you find the truth. Do not let doubts cause you to give up. You may just be dealing with words that do not mean what you think they do. You may be dealing with truths you have not recognized.

  23. Mr. Schmidt says:

    I read all of this, and I think … how to we come to terms with the things we don’t know? And how to we truly learn to recognize what we do know? Or at least have been led to learn if we pay attention? How many times do we learn truths that seem counterintuitive, but cast them away because of that? How many times does God teach us that something is not true in the manner we’ve been taught (supposedly by culture, not by God), and we ignore it because tradition?

    In the structure of the OP, I do agree that “God is a baby. Everything we know about God comes through loaves.” Indeed, everything that comes to us from God passes through a human filter – whether it is someone else’s or our own.

    On a different note, I’m sure I’m just misunderstanding some of the OP, but isn’t this approach at some level trying to reconcile currently accepted “worldly” theories with what religion puts forward?

  24. rebeccadalmas says:

    Paula, giving up on the church as absolute authority does not mean giving up on goodness or truth. They can still be sought. What I have done for a long time now is recognise a truth similar to what you said previously, “No one can intervene between you and God. ” The church, prophets, and Book of Mormon are all attempts at intervention between the individual and God. I reject that, but I appreciate the ability to filter out positives from participation in the church. I am warmed by your own testimony, but you seem to be advocating a contradiction.

    I am so incredibly grateful that I no longer seek to accept all the teachings of the church. This change has very likely saved lives in my family.

  25. rebeccadalmus,
    I sincerely hope you find what you are looking for. But I cannot believe the problem is with what the Book of Mormon teaches because it does not teach what you say it does.

  26. rebeccadalmas says:

    Ellen, I hope you find what you are looking for as well. I would hope that anyone who reads the Book of Mormon or participates in the church can allow themselves to grow what is good but reject what is harmful, even if the harm comes from scripture, church leaders or structure.

  27. Another Roy says:

    I think that we tend to follow the all or nothing mindset because it is easier for boundary maintenance, controlling doctrine and teachings, and is a fear tactic for helping the faithful to stay away from the “line”. IOW, “You are either with us or against us”, “This is what “We” know to be true”, and “If you ever leave us, you will turn into one of them.” In that way the church doesn’t fear anti-Mormons. Anti-Mormons make the church’s point for them. The church leadership is probably more concerned about what they might view as a watered down “taffy-pull” church experience that a loaf approach to religion might bring.

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