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the Betterment of Souls


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Rusty left this comment on Flanders' VSOM "Ned's Wager" post:

"I'm not aware of any other set of teachings/beliefs that teach a person how to become a better person that is better than ours. The kind of person that I want to someday be is the kind of person that living the principles of the gospel will make me. "


This is a pretty common sentiment among believers, is it not? At very least it should be, because what good is it to hold "beliefs" that you don't "believe" in? Considering that the Gospel should/will change you, shouldn't that change be into something you desire? It seems obvious to me.

Yet, the above doesn't do me any good as a non-Mormon. It's more or less an empty phrase. (Rusty seems like a generally nice and decent person, so if any of this seems critical of him, it is only a reflection on my poor skills as a writer. Please don't let me be misunderstood!)

I can see two ways of interpreting Rusty's comment:

First Argument:
  1. The teachings/beliefs of the LDS church can make me the best person I can be.
  2. No other teachings/beliefs can do this.
  3. I [should] want to be the best person I can be.
  4. So, I should accept the teachings/beliefs of the LDS Church.


Second Argument:
  1. There are many sets of teachings/beliefs that will make you a better person.
  2. The teachings/beliefs of the LDS church are the best of these.
  3. I [should] want to be the best person I can be.
  4. So, I should accept the teachings/beliefs of the LDS Church.


I don't know which one Rusty intended or which one the majority of Church members agree with. I'm not even sure it entirely matters--the conclusion is the same--though I think the differences are important. Arg I claims that there is some sort of achievable limit to how "good" I can be and that the only way to reach it is to accept the t/b of the Church. Arg II doesn't necessarily claim a "limit," but implies that the t/b is the best, methodologically, of achieving the "goal."

I haven't thought through a lot of this (having been inspired by Rusty's comment just an hour ago) so I don't know what to make of it. I'll post later about why I think these are bad arguments from a non-member's perspective (though it should be semi-obvious why). But, for now, some questions. So pair off in groups of four and put your turn your desks so you're facing each other (just like elementary school!):

What are the important differences between the two arguments? Do the differences mean anything? Do/should the different approaches affect your outlook on the t/b of the Church? Do/should they affect how missionary work (primarily informal) is done? Are they good arguments? Is one gooder than the other?


20 Responses to “the Betterment of Souls”

  1. Anonymous Watt Mahoun 

    Pris, I don't see a significant difference between the two arguments from a mormon perspective, though, from a non-mormon perspective, argument 2 appears to be less extreme. Both arguments suggest that "being the best I can be" is core to being, and leave exactly what "the best" means, an unspoken assumption: "the best" is defined by the teachings of the church.

    To rephrase, I guess this is really what bothers me...that the arguments suggest that some church is "the best" at making me "the best", but begs the question of what the "the best" is.

    If you believe the LDS doctrines of exaltation, then of course the LDS church is "the best" way to make you the best your can be. If you don't believe it, then the argument is absurd.

  2. Anonymous Geoff J 

    It seems, based on the way you wrote arguments 1 and 2, that there is little difference between the two. Both say that believing and following the teachings of the church lead to becoming the best person we can be. I thought that argument 1.2 might be a problem -- especially if it said no other teaching can make one better -- but all is says is that no other teachings can make one the *best* they can be. So basically there appears to be no substantive difference between argument 1 and 2.

    Now I will say that argument 2 seems to describe the reality of the situation from a Mormon perspective the best, though.

  3. Anonymous Geoff J 

    Oops -- looks like I parroted Watt...

  4. Anonymous Pris 

    What if I was to tweak Arg2 a bit by explaining what "the best of these" means? Say there are two options:

    A) The Goal can be achieved in X years of doing Y.

    B) The Goal can be achieved in 100*X years of Y.

    In this scenario, option A would be the "best".

    That's how I was viewing the second option: that the t/b of the Church was the best, but perhaps not the only. Maybe you could do the few things the Gospel requires, or you can do 389 other things that are incredibly hard that no one has ever done before.

    Of course, this is doctrinaly problematic, but maybe an argument can be made.

  5. Anonymous D-Train 

    I don't know that Rusty intended that comment as an argument/attempt to persuade nonbelievers. I think he just meant it as a refutation of the idea that gospel living makes one worse off.

  6. Anonymous Tom 

    Neither argument resembles any case I would make for why one should accept the teachings/beliefs of the LDS Church. The premise of each argument is that there is some absolute, commonly understood definition of what it means to be a good person. But it is the belief system itself that defines what it means to be a good person and there are many competing, mutually exclusive claims, including claims that there is no absolute ideal. Any belief system that makes a claim as to what constitutes the ideal person can make the argument that their system is the best way to attain that ideal.

  7. Anonymous Pris 

    D-Train: I agree, but the arguments I posted were inspired by the line of thought that I think Rusty was using. That is, I think if we take Rusty's sentiment and globalize it, these arguments are what comes up.

    Tom: But isn't there a commonly understood definition of "good person" in the Church--"Christ-like" (or some variant)? What "Christ-like" or "exaltation" or "be like Heavenly Father" means in detail and practice seems difficult to define. Looking at it as a skeptic, I agree with you--particularly your last sentence. But (trying) to look at the issue as a believer--one who agrees in the 'goal' (however we define it, even if it isn't a definite, tangible goal)--I'm not sure what to make of your objection. Probably, I'm just confused.

  8. Anonymous D-Train 

    This comments occasionally not showing up until another one is posted thing sucks.....

    And Arwyn, I promise I'll answer your email. This week sucks.

  9. Anonymous D-Train 

    It did it again.....

  10. Anonymous D-Train 

    I think Tom might be saying that our conception of the good in some way stipulates at least some of the ways that we can attain it. Therefore, it might be better to start the conversation with an evaluation of what is good rather than the means of attaining it.

    It would be interesting to hear Rusty's take on globalizing his sentiment. I'm not sure it can be done, truthfully.

  11. Anonymous Watt Mahoun 

    Pris, not to mention that being "good" and being "the best you can be" are totally different points. If we want to talk about whether the church is better at making one "good" than any other organization...I think we have a very difficult challenge. However, if we want to talk about the church being the best at making one "the best one can be", then the argument lies only in proving that the church's definition of "the best" is true while all others are either false or distant approximations...which I think is what the 2 arguments you orginally present express.

    Am I mistaken?

  12. Anonymous Watt Mahoun 

    So to answer one of your original questions: "Do/should they affect how missionary work (primarily informal) is done?" Definitely!

    We should avoid presenting ourselves as an organization best suited for making people/familes/communities good...better than any other...and focus on the distinct claim that the church is the only/best one for saving/pefecting/exalting (ie. making people the best they can be).

    Of course, this gets to the point of authority and truth, which seems to have been largely removed from the member missionary approach.

  13. Anonymous Tom 

    Pris: "Probably, I'm just confused."

    Probably, I'm just a bad writer.

    D-train (#10) expresses the jist of it. Neither of the two arguments that you present has any convincing power to people who don't have the same conception of what it means to be a good person. Within the Church, yes, we have an ideal, which is Christ. But why should the non-believer want to be like Christ?

    From a believer's perspective, we can't really accomplish the task of helping non-believers do what it takes to believe by making arguments that only have merit if our beliefs are true.

  14. Anonymous Pris 

    Watt: You're right. I was using "best" and "good" interchangably. Whether best=good in the abstract would be a great philosophical debate. Whether best=good in a Church setting is interesting. That said, I don't think you're mistaken--I think we're saying much the same thing.

    If this is so, then I agree with #12. One form of missionary-type work is to convince the investigator that the Church will make him/her a better person (the second argument, perhaps?), while the other requires convincing the investigator to accept the Church's definition of "better person" (first argument?).

    ...Which is probably what y'all have been saying all along. Don't mind me, I'm just slow. Move along. [Dang, I almost feel like something was accomplished while blogging today.]

  15. Anonymous Tom 

    About missionary work, since arguments that depend on our beliefs being true have no convincing power, we should focus on what we fundamentally have in common: the desire to be happy (even if happiness may be hard to define, it is the one thing that everyone wants). So the only way I can think of to try and persuade a non-believer to do what it takes to become a believer would be to say something like this: I believe that God has provided a way for us children to be happy forever and I believe that following the teachings of the LDS Church is a way (or the way--I can't decide) to attain that happiness. I believe the Lord will make it clear to you that this is true if you investigate and ask Him.

  16. Anonymous Pris 

    Tom (#13): "From a believer's perspective, we can't really accomplish the task of helping non-believers do what it takes to believe by making arguments that only have merit if our beliefs are true."

    Two things.

    First, I do think the Church has value even if it isn't true. I believe--as a non-Mormon--that there are a great number of people that would/could be helped (become "better," even by their standards) by hearing/accepting the Gospel/Church. [There are a lot of qualifications I want to throw into this, but generally, this is how I feel.]

    Second, is there any value to me (qua skeptic) to accepting the beliefs of the Church if there is no benefit to me, even if it true? Of course, there are benefits if the Church is true (ie exaltation). So, not only do missionaries (formal/informal) need to convince the skeptic that the Goal is valid (ie that the Church is true) but also that that is a good thing. I think you and D-Train are right that "what is good" and "how is it attained" are not exclusive, but I do think there is value in discussing the second without defining the first.

  17. Anonymous annegb 

    Good points. Good discussion. The difference is so subtle, but it is different and when I've made that point in Sunday School, I've had a few people take my head off.

    I think the "truth" the "reality" of existence, ie God, is something so incomprehensible that no one can really articulate it, but what we have as Mormons is closest. Others are also close. And the differences will matter less than we think they will in the long run.

    Very good topic, Pris.

  18. Anonymous Arwyn 

    I like the ideas you bring up here, Pris -- and good discussion of them, too, all around.

    I picked up the distinction between Pris's two arguments pretty quickly. The summary of the difference, as he's clarified above: is the LDS church the only way to better one's self? Or is it the best of many?

    From a believer's point of view -- does it matter? I don't think so. As long as you believe one or the other, you believe you're in the right and on the better/best path.

    But how do you come to believe that? That's what I want to know. Is it because we're taught this in church? Isn't any religion worth its salt bound to teach this? Or it is because of personal experience? I give the latter more weight, personally; but what if I have a different experience that tells me that the LDS church will make me a better person -- but that following the teachings of, say, Confucius, will make me a better one faster?

    I think there's a lot of room for questioning there -- whatever Rusty's original intent with his comment was, Pris brings up a lot of interesting points and questions surrounding the very idea.

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