The idea and person views of truth can lead to different views on moral and societal progress. When we adopt an idea view of truth, we often assume that society is continually moving from antiquated ideals towards ever newer and better ones. We assume that knowledge is cumulative. Society, from this view, is on a fairly straightforward trajectory of continual progress. For many, the greatest intellectual or moral crime is to be “behind the times,” “out of touch,” or “on the wrong side of history.”

Consider the popular computer game Civilization, originally developed by Sid Meier. In the game, the player shepherds a civilization from the stone age into the modern age. Part of the strategy of the game is deciding which technologies and social developments to prioritize, while competing against neighboring nations. Within the game, no development is ever lost, once gained. Every new development builds upon previous developments, whether technological, social, or political.

Civilization is just a game, but it illustrates the assumption that progress is the inevitable result of collective human action. If truth is a set of ideas that we grasp with the mind, then all we must do is record those truths in our collective memory. The invention of writing made this possible, and the information age makes this inevitable. From this view, we are unlikely to regress to earlier stages of development, or forget the truth we have accumulated.

This is because the idea view of truth assumes that truth is discoverable by human methods, and that truth is largely a matter of the mind. We can archive discoveries and innovations in libraries and databanks, so they can never be truly forgotten. This applies to moral truth as well. From an idea view of truth, even if individuals engage in faulty moral reasoning, the moral beliefs of rational people across cultures and time will eventually converge. Changes in our collective moral reasoning are presumed to be almost always for the better.

This assumption sometimes leads to what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery,” which is the “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[1] Figuring out the direction of progress only requires extrapolating current trends. From the idea-view of truth, current societal consensus trumps the prior tradition, and future societal consensus trumps both. Only fools linger at the tail end of our onward march of social, moral, and intellectual progress.

Our relationship with person-truth requires nurturing

As you may have guessed, person-truth treats moral progress very differently: our relationship with truth is inextricably connected to our relationship with God. Like any relationship, it must be nurtured. Scripture contradicts the assumption that societal progress is inevitable, or that knowledge inevitably increases over time. The Old Testament is thick with stories of apostasy, in which the Israelites neglected their covenants with God and slid backwards in their pilgrimage towards truth.

The prophet Jeremiah, for example, wrote: “The Lord said also unto me. … Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not” (Jeremiah 3:6-7). Notice the metaphor of infidelity that is used in these passages. Jeremiah continues, “Because my people hath forgotten me, they have burned incense to vanity, and they have caused them to stumble in their ways from the ancient paths, to walk in paths, in a way not cast up” (Jeremiah 18:15).

Similar themes are found in the Book of Mormon. Alma cried to the people of Ammonihah, “Behold, O ye wicked and perverse generation, how have ye forgotten the tradition of your fathers; yea, how soon ye have forgotten the commandments of God” (Alma 9:8). The prophet Mormon spoke of the Nephites who followed the wicked Amalickiah, “Thus we see how quick the children of men do forget the Lord their God, yea, how quick to do iniquity, and to be led away by the evil one” (Alma 46:8). The Nephites would often “forget the Lord their God” and “wax strong in iniquity” (Helaman 11:36). Later, the prophet Mormon wrote:

And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men; yea, we can see that the Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him. Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people … yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One – yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.

And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him. … Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths! Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide. (Helaman 12:1-6)

Passages such as these permanently dispel the notion that society’s moral trajectory is always upward and forward. In fact, it was when the Nephites and Lamanites exalted their own wisdom over the teachings of Christ and His servants that they faltered the most in their moral, societal, and spiritual progress.

None of this makes sense if truth is a set of universal principles, especially in a modern era where information can be so easily replicated, disseminated, and preserved. However, if truth is a person, then accumulated information is no guarantee of moral progress, and a photographic memory is no guarantee against moral regress. Our knowledge of truth is bound up with our covenantal relationship with God. We can lose truth as we neglect or betray that relationship. In the Book of Mormon, the Lord said:

[B]lessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30)

In other words, sin can lead us to lose—and even forget—knowledge we have previously had. We see this happen in human relationships all the time: people who are in love, and who have a falling out, will often forget the good times they’ve had together, and only remember the bad. Sometimes, it is only when they’ve reconciled that they begin to remember the good times again. The same is true of our relationship with God: when we distance ourselves from Him, we can forget the times we have experienced His hand in our lives. We can forget the foundations of our relationship with God.

We progress on our journey by heeding God’s voice

When we covenant our allegiance to Christ, He promises to lead us—both metaphorically and literally—safely through this “vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise” (Alma 37:45). He did this for the Israelites after they fled Egypt, Jared’s people after they fled the city where the tower of Babel was being constructed,[2] Lehi’s family after they fled Jerusalem,[3] and for the Saints moving West after the death of the Prophet Joseph.[4]

Today, our promised land is to build a global covenant community. This community is called Zion, a society in which God’s laws are lived and normalized, and in which residents walk and dwell in the presence of Divine Beings. In the Zion of Enoch’s day, “the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness … [and] they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:16, 18).

In the Nephite version of Zion, “they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift … and did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God,” (4 Nephi 1:3, 12). From a scriptural perspective, this is the pinnacle of societal and moral progress, and something towards which all disciples of Christ are striving.[5]

It is also worth noting that in each covenant journey through the wilderness, God sent directors to guide His covenant people safely through the dangers that plagued their journey. These have included pillars of fire, scriptures, liahonas, seer stones, prophets and apostles, and the Holy Spirit. A number of times, though, God’s covenant people faltered in their progress. This always happened when they neglected the instructions God had given to them through His conduits of revelation.

Alma taught his son Helaman about the Liahona (director, compass) that the Lord provided to Lehi and his family. He wrote:

[I]t did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done. …

Nevertheless … they were slothful, and forgot to exercise their faith and diligence and then those marvelous works ceased, and they did not progress in their journey; Therefore, they tarried in the wilderness, or did not travel a direct course, and were afflicted with hunger and thirst, because of their transgressions. (Alma 37:40-42)

Similarly, when the ancient Israelites disregarded the pleadings and guidance of Moses, they ended up wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Likewise, when the brother of Jared ceased to call upon God, he and his people tarried for years rather than progressing on their journey forward (Ether 2:13-14). In every case, progress was only made to the extent that people heeded the instructions of God within their covenant community. In our covenant community, the authorized channel of revelation include the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Holy Spirit.

From an idea view of truth, “societal progress” is takes place independent of our relationship with God. We sometimes adopt this view in the Church. We assume that while societal progress is inevitable, it is also slow. Prophets “foresee” and “anticipate” future progress and can accelerate our progress. In this view, revelation allows Latter-day Saints to stay a little ahead of the moral and social progress curve, to be a “light on the hill,” moving society forward with us.[6]

This may be why some Latter-day Saints become agitated and discouraged when it seems like leaders of the Church are straggling behind on this forward journey, or when prophets question the virtue of progressive changes taking place in society. When this happens, some assume that divine revelation is being hampered by tradition and unacknowledged prejudice. One former Latter-day Saint expressed this frustration: “The church, with its LGBT policies, is committing membership generational homicide. And it’s a double-whammy for the LDS church, because as prophets, seers, and revelators, they are supposed to see AHEAD of the times.”[7]

However, from a person view of truth, when we betray our covenants with God, we unhinge ourselves from the only Person who can keep us from faltering in our moral and spiritual progress. Our greatest concern should not be whether we are on the “right side of history,” but whether we are on the right side of God.[8] We have been warned by apostles and prophets that society is heading in a direction that we really do not want to travel. When prophets warn against embracing the so-called “common sense” of our day, it is not because they are reluctant stragglers in society’s march towards progress. Rather, it is because society may not actually be progressing at all on matters of greatest importance.

References   [ + ]

1. C. S. Lewis, Essential C. S. Lewis (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 39.
2. The Lord told the Brother of Jared, “I will go before thee into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth” (Ether 1:42).
3. The Lord told Nephi, “And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands” (1 Nephi 2:20).
4. Ronald K. Esplin, “A ‘Place Prepared’ in the Rockies,” Ensign, July, 1988, 6-13.
5. See Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1989).
6. See Ralph Hancock’s critique of this view in his article, “Our One-sided ‘Openness’ to Continuing Revelation,” First Things, October 16, 2013.
7. John Dehlin, personal Facebook post (publicly visible to all users of Facebook). At the time of this writing, John Dehlin claimed to be a member of the Church in good standing.
8. A famous account of an exchange between President Abraham Lincoln and a minister during the height of the Civil War reflects this sentiment. Apparently the minister expressed to President Lincoln his fervent belief that “the Lord was on our side.” The President, however, responded: “I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” Francis Bicknell Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1866), 282, italics in the original.