Are My Preconceived Notions Blinding Me?By: Jake
It is not often that I am prone to blog about scriptures and how they can inspire us. I generally find blogs that are a form of scriptural exegesis rather dull. If I want insipid spiritual thoughts full of sentimentality and devoid of substance I have the Ensign for that, or if I want to reinforce a smug sense of superiority then I can go read Meridian Magazine. However, today I feel like sharing what I learnt a few months ago whilst teaching my Sunday School class.
It still baffles me that I was called to be a youth sunday school teacher given my numerous heretical, critical and somewhat agnostic beliefs that I don’t hide. The fact I am a Sunday School teacher leaves me questioning the inspiration/desperation behind the call. Either God has a sense of humour or the leadership didn’t realise what was going to happen.
The first week I taught, we discussed Nephi. However, we did this using a critical historical methodology. We discussed Nephi’s reliability as a narrator, the biases that might have impacted upon his writing, and how it is convenient that Nephi was always the most righteous given that he was the author. He also exhibits younger brother syndrome, moaning about his older siblings and claiming that they are so mean and pick on him all the time. This distorted perspective is not unique to Nephi but is a common family dynamic. My class all left saying, “Nephi isn’t reliable.” The Sunday School President spoke with me later that day.
Sunday School president: The kids have told me that you taught them that the scriptures aren’t always reliable.
Me: Well, I simply taught them how to treat the Book of Mormon as a historical document and asked them to what extent Nephi is a reliable writer.
Sunday School President: I don’t think that is a good thing to do. You’re teaching them to question the scriptures.
Me: Hey, I am just saying that if it is really a historical document then it should be put through the same scrutiny as any other historical text. If anything I am increasing their faith because I at least assumed that Nephi was a real person. Teaching them to question him makes him more real. You should thank me for that as I could have treated the Book of Mormon as if it was inspired fiction and asked why Joseph Smith made Nephi so self-righteous.
Despite this initial policing I have been given free reign, and the classes have generally continued this unorthodox approach. We continue to have discussions about the scriptures using critical thinking rather than the prescriptive rehearsal of set questions and answers that the manual gives us to perform – you know, the same as always:
- Read Scripture.
- Ask Generic Question.
- Acceptable answers: Read Scriptures, Prayer, Follow the Prophet.
- [Repeat ad nauseaum]
Instead, in my class, we discuss what the class wants to learn from the passages. I find this approach more interesting and more engaging.
We looked at the wicked King Noah. The one who built expensive spacious buildings, that probably was an ancient form of a shopping mall in Salt Lake City, wasted his energy on harlots, attending lavish parties and general extravagant living. Usually he is only studied as the killer of Abinidi. However, in my class we looked at how we were like King Noah. We compared ourselves to King Noah by focusing on the fact that he surrounded himself with priests who reinforced his beliefs and got rid of those who disagreed with him. The Book of Mormon states that :
5 For he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new aones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts.
6 Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.
As a class we discussed how it is human to want to find people who support you in your opinions and the ways in which we are like King Noah. We all want to think we are right. By surrounding ourselves with yes-men (and women) it certainly helps us to feel like that we are right because everyone agrees with us, even though we could all be wrong. We feed of each other to become more secure in ourselves with no one to challenge us. Whilst discussing this one of the members of the class (my sister) asked if members who all hang around each other then are being like King Noah, in that we find people who give us the advice that we want to hear by only associating with members it reinforces our sense of being right as they all agree with us. Another said that testimony meeting sometimes was like this in that it is people all reassuring people about their beliefs being correct and right as they are shared amongst each other.
We often assume that associating with people with the same beliefs is a virtue, but King Noah did the same. Was he virtuous in surrounding himself with people with the same beliefs? Maybe in both cases there is a downside. As Andrew S has said, we need a plurality of voices in both our online and personal discussions to challenge our views and prevent us from living in an echo chamber. It may be flattering to have everyone agree with you, but it also stifles creativity and personal development. We need opposition and different voices to refine our ideas.
As a class we thought about how we create friendship groups. We considered the following passage from Samuel the Lamanite:
27 But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: aWalk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a bprophet.
28 Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh aflattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.
To what extent do I judge the prophets and apostles based on my own liberal views? Do my prejudices, bias and preconceived notions blind me and cause me to dismiss what I see as bigotry and anti-intellectualism? Am I quick to dismiss anything by Boyd K. Packer because as a product of his generation his views contradict mine? The reformer Erasmus said, “the force of preconceived notions is that strong that even in a learned mind; no other factor in the making of judgements has greater power to distract or blind the intellect.” (Erasmus, Collected Works, p88) Are my preconceived notions about equality, respect and tolerance blinding me? On the other hand, how can I tell if I am simply agreeing with leaders insofar as they agree with me?
As I thought about it I realised that perhaps I am more like King Noah than I thought. Perhaps I surround myself with other critical thinkers with liberal views to help me feel more secure about my own views and beliefs. Maybe I am only open-minded to a certain extent, that I only consider views within a limited range of intellectual positions.
Are you also like King Noah?