Why is truth reliable? Why is truth valuable? Idea-truth is seen as reliable because it never changes. In contrast, person-truth is reliable because He is good. Idea-truth is seen as valuable because it gives us control over our world, and our knowledge of idea-truth is independent of our moral activities. However, our relationship with person-truth is contingent on our moral conduct, and may require us to relinquish control in our lives.

If truth is found in unchangeable ideas, and if the operations of the physical world are patterned after these ideas, then truth allows us to predict what will happen in future or counterfactual situations. Once we know what could happen if conditions were different, we can exert control over the future by changing those conditions. This is called the “technological ideal” of modern science. Seen in this light, idea-truth is valuable because of the power that it provides us over our lives.

Further, knowing idea-truth is entirely independent of the moral quality of our lives. Our behavior in the bedroom (or the boardroom), our dishonesty and pride, or our lack of compassion towards those who suffer, are all unrelated to our ability to accurately report observations or make logical inferences. For example, is the general theory of relativity undermined because Einstein was unfaithful to each of his wives? Idea-truth is entirely a matter of the mind, not of the heart or soul. Idea-truth does not care what we plan to do with our knowledge.

Person-truth involves personal morality

In contrast, how we behave towards God and others does affect our ability to know person-truth. In fact, it is only through obedience to the Truth made Flesh that we come to really know Him. Violating God’s laws damages our relationship with Him and alienates us from truth. Joseph Smith taught this quite clearly when he said: “God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect.”[1]

From this view, our ability to understand God’s will for us may be jeopardized if we are cruel to others, or if we self-serving. Obviously, an active God can interrupt a life of sin and call us unto repentance, as He did Saul on the road to Damascus or Alma the Younger as he was gadding about trying to destroy the Church. Nonetheless, our capacity to know God depends on our receptiveness to His voice and our willingness to covenant with Him.

Of course, person-truth does grant us power, but of a different kind than the technological ideal of modern thought. The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught, through faith, “we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea” (Jacob 4:6). However, it is always and ever God’s power by which we do this. In the very next verse, Jacob clarifies, “Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things” (Jacob 4:7, emphasis added).

Clearly, the power of God is not found in our ability to extrapolate future events through unchangeable laws. It is a power grounded in moral goodness and the spiritual possibilities of righteous living. Unlike idea-truth, person-truth cares what we plan to do with His power. As we read in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. (D&C 121:34-36)

In other words, while idea-truth promises to help us exert our will on the world (for good or bad), person-truth does nothing of the sort. It is only when we strive to enact God’s will (in humility) that person-truth shares His power with us.

Person-truth does not help us predict the future

From the idea view of truth, we find safety in formulating reliable expectations of the future. In contrast, from the person view of truth, our safety is grounded in the goodness of God and His promises to us. An anecdote from a popular story by C. S. Lewis may help illustrate this point. In his science fiction book, Perelandra, Lewis tells a story of an Eden-like ocean world with both floating islands and fixed lands. One of the protagonists, a woman, was commanded by a Divine Entity to spend her nights on islands that float with the currents.

At one point in the story, her companion drifted away on a neighboring floating island, and she did not know when she would see him again. A demonic being tempted her to spend a night on fixed land, promising her that if she did, so she would be better situated to find her lost companion. Lewis’s story differs from the Biblical account of Eden, because the protagonist never succumbs to temptation. She is later introduced to fixed land by divine beings, who rescind the prior commandment and reunite her with her companion. At this point, she remarks:

The reason for not yet living on the Fixed Land is now so plain. How could I wish to live there except because it was Fixed? And why should I desire the Fixed except to make sure—to be able on one day to command where I should be the next and what should happen to me? It was to reject the wave—to draw my hands out of [God’s], to say to Him, “Not thus, but thus”—to put in our own power what times should roll toward us … That would have been cold love and feeble trust. And out of it how could we ever have climbed back into love and trust again?[2]

Sometimes we apply the technological ideal of idea-truth to the Gospel. We assume that if truth is a set of abstract ideas that never change, then when we know truth, it will help us form expectations of the future. In this view, Gospel living becomes a formula that we follow to guarantee a prosperous life, a happy marriage, faithful children, or any number of other blessings. However, turning to Christ involves surrendering control over our lives. We no longer put “trust in the arm of flesh” (2 Ne. 4:34), or put our hopes and faith in our expectations for the future. Although entirely fictional, this passage from Lewis echoes the sentiments of the New Testament apostle James, who wrote:

Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. (James 4:13-15)

Life springs surprises on even the most faithful Saints, because of unexpected death of family, a distressing inability to marry, the terrors of war, the careless mistakes of others, and so forth. We cannot control the future, and person-truth promises no such mastery. This does not mean we should live life passively, or ignore the future when conducting our affairs. It simply means that our faith and trust should rest with God, not our preparations.

Person-truth is not safe

Another fictional anecdote from C. S. Lewis’s book, The Silver Chair, will help to illustrate our point even more. In Lewis’s story, the character Jill has for the first time stepped foot into a magical world, in Aslan’s own country. Aslan is the Great Lion, the son of the Emperor beyond the sea. All creatures in Narnia are morally accountable to him, and they look to him for guidance. Jill knows nothing of Narnia or Aslan, and she is alone and terrified and extremely thirsty.

In time she stumbles upon a stream, but between her and the stream is a fearsome lion. After waiting some time, hoping for the lion to move away, Jill is stunned to hear the lion speak: “If you are thirsty, you may drink.” Jill, with reverential awe, asks, “Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” Aslan responds, “I make no promise.” The conversation then continues:

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.[3]

While Aslan invited Jill forward to drink from the stream, he offered her no promise of safety. Nonetheless, Jill decides to trust Aslan and drink from the stream. Aslan then asks her to go on a quest, and the adventure of the book begins. Lewis offers us a similar insight in another Narnia book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In this story, the Pevensie children find themselves in Narnia, in the care of some talking beavers who speak reverentially about Aslan. Upon hearing that Aslan is a lion, the children ask, “Is he safe?” One of the beavers respond, “Safe? [D]on’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[4]

In the character of Aslan, we believe that Lewis has beautifully expressed the profound difference between idea-truth and person-truth. Idea-truth is reliable because it is safe. Once you genuinely know it, you know what to expect—there will be no surprises. It never changes the rules on you, asks you to sacrifice something dear to you, or holds you morally accountable. Idea-truth dispels the mystery of life and nature, allows us to predict what comes next, and brings the world under human control.

In contrast, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is reliable because He is good. However, He is certainly not safe. He is not predictable or controllable, or without surprises up His sleeve. Becoming disciples of Christ provides no guarantee against suffering, heartache, grief, or pain (which is precisely what we ask of idea-truth and its companion, the technological ideal of science). To the extent that person-truth does promise stability, it is because Hebrew tradition relies “on covenant as a means of establishing stable expectations in a changing world.”[5]

The lyrics of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation” illustrates this beautifully: “How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!”[6] The foundation is not firm because it is built upon some universal law or set of abstract principles. Rather, the foundation is firm because God has made us promises, and He keeps His promises. He will never forsake us, never abandon us in our hour of need. He will always be there to rescue us, support us, strengthen us, and sanctify us.

When we covenant with God, we do not know all that He might ask us to do. In His wisdom, He does not tell us beforehand what trials we will be called to endure, what responsibilities and stewardships we will be given, or what habits and lifestyles we will be asked to relinquish. In fact, as faithful disciples of Christ, our path may lead through “fiery trials,” through sickness, health, poverty’s vale or abounding wealth. We just do not know. So it is not a very safe bet—but it is certainly a good one.

References   [ + ]

1. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 206-216.
2. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 1996), 208.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1953), 20-21.
4. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1950), 86.
5. Noel B. Reynolds, “The Decline of Covenant in Early Christian Thought,” in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy (Provo, UT: BYU Press, FARMS, 2005), 319, emphasis added.
6. Attributed to Robert Keen, “How Firm a Foundation,” in Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), Hymn #85.