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Brigham Young’s Nonsensical Formula for Enlightenment

I want to share some thoughts that I heard last Sunday in church. The topic was “otherness,” which sounds as ambiguous as the lesson was. At first I couldn’t understand what the teacher was even talking about, but by the end, I felt thoroughly enlightened.

It began with a story about Brigham Young (warning to the scholarly reader: I’m too lazy to search for references). Some people came to him with difficult problem, asking for his advice. He told them to go read the scriptures. These people were taken aback, unable to understand how reading the scriptures related to their problem. They asked which book or passage they should read from. Brother Brigham replied that it didn’t matter. What was important was that they immerse themselves with the of the scriptures (a language that was not of the world), and that in so doing, they would be touched by the Spirit of God and attain a state of sufficient intelligence and discernment through which they could solve this particular problem.

It’s as if Brigham Young were saying, “You’ll find the answer to your equation by plugging the variables into a completely unrelated formula.” This logic doesn’t jive well with our modern world, where empiricism reigns supreme.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of documentaries on world history. Though the commentators and subjects are unrelated, one theme that works its way into nearly every presentation is religion. Though religion is still a big part of most people’s lives, a hundred or two years prior and straight back to the beginning of humanity, religion was a HUGE part. By modern standards, practically everyone in the middle ages was a religious fanatic. In short, you could say that the ancient world was generally Platonic, and the modern world is generally Aristotelian. By generally focusing on the real world instead of the spiritual and abstract, we’ve been able to make rapid strides in civilization and science. But have there been any costs in abandoning the religious “fanaticism” of our forebearers?

One evidence that we’re missing something is our obsession with fantasy. The teacher of this lesson has been a film and TV director. He told us his observation that movies with intense fantasy elements generally sold much better than movies that were more realistic. It’s evident that not only are we tired of the practical world and long to escape into something more exciting, but we have an inherent longing for a word beyond that which we can perceive with our natural senses. And yet, day-to-day, we fully invest ourselves in the practical world. Especially in matters of controversy, it’s become unfashionable to defend one’s opinion with, “It just feels right,” or “this is my belief,” while far more acceptable to say, “According to such and such a study …”

For the devout Platonist, the temptation could arise to flip to the other extreme and say, “The world as we know it is nothing but an illusion, and only by freeing ourselves from it can we achieve enlightenment.” Mormonism takes a unique stance somewhere between these two extremes. It’s our belief that up until a few years ago, each and every one of us were resident beings of this other world, and that there were some things we simply could not learn without having a physical experience. After all, you can’t learn Spanish by reading about it in English. You have to immerse yourself in a Spanish environment. Thus, as we are truly spiritual beings having a physical experience, to seek to free ourselves from the physical world would be a mistake. And yet, at our cores, we do belong to the “other” world. Our purpose, it seems, is both to learn how to be physical while simultaneously rediscovering our spiritual roots.

The challenge is learning to achieve this balance. It’s an inherent challenge, because “the natural man is an enemy to God.” In other words, being born into physical bodies, spirituality comes anything but naturally to us. According to this article, our right brain is responsible for selfishness, and the less we focus on it, the more “spirituality” we feel.

Perhaps one reason why our world has become less spiritually-minded is because in a day of instant communication, loud music, and fast food, as opposed to the slowness and quietness of the days of yore, we have little patience for ambiguity, and at a quick glance, the “other” world simply doesn’t compute. As a beginner¬† immerses himself in Spanish, most of it won’t make sense. But to the diligent student, the mysteries will gradually be replaced by understanding, knowledge, and eventually power.

The Holy Ghost is that little ear bud that helps us to make sense of this other world, communicating things to our understanding that we can’t yet explain rationally, helping us to make the transition from the “natural man” to the enlightened man, until we’re no longer driven by our flesh but by something higher. When we achieve this state of enlightenment, we find that that the things of the “other” world, are in fact, fully rational, but had we never taken the plunge into what seemed at the time as irrational, we would have never known.

And that, I think, is what Brigham Young meant.

2 thoughts on “Brigham Young’s Nonsensical Formula for Enlightenment

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I just wanted to include my observation that sometimes it’s also about changing how we’re thinking about something. Sometimes you only find the answer to a puzzle by becoming less entrenched in and devoted to preconceived notions of what the answer was “supposed” to be and how it was to be found. It makes sense in hindsight at times because, once you have the answer, you realize your path of thinking was so incredibly off-track that you were willing to go down fighting for a bad idea simply because you had invested time or effort or both into it, but admittedly, most of the time you don’t ever understand what it was about the changes you made that unlocked your brain and helped you see the truth.

    It’s something that worries me about some aspects of our current style of educating ourselves and others, because we tend to compartmentalize things to the point of excluding the rest of life and the world and, yes, even segregating an entire half of our brains to keep our knowledge “pure.” The problem comes with the fact that it’s not nearly so dangerous to allow wisdom in your own preferred field to come from other quarters. I suppose it’s an artifact of industrialization, this idea that you can make life and people into assembly-line manufactured products, but the fact remains that at the end of the assembly line, even a machine has to have its gears eventually touch and be able to work together…and we have more than just our mechanical components (for those skeptics out there, perhaps you may consider that a car has never demonstrated having the placebo effect). I sometimes wonder if that’s why we have great strides in some areas of a field but seem to take so long making progress in other areas, especially in areas where we treat living creatures, since in our world, it seems to be common practice to manipulate them as if they were machines or, at best, thoughtless animals.

    It’s also worth noting that there are those who don’t specialize in just one field, and to those people, this may or may not apply, depending on how much to heart they take the culture of separation of expertise. I personally think it’s pretty great when someone does multiple things, but I realize not everyone has the variety of interests or ability to divide their attention when they’re very focused on one aspect of knowledge. I’m not saying it’s bad to specialize, but I do theorize that many of us can gain from expanding our horizons and shifting our perspectives, especially when we’re stuck and know it.

    Anyhow, that’s just what I was thinking early on in the post. I’m excited to talk to some people about the ideas you presented, so I’m going to share it and see what other ideas come up in analysis. It was a very satisfying read; thank you for posting it!

  2. Best post in a long time , which is saying something because I really like most your post.

    Too farther complicate things you also have to balance your rational, spiritual and physical self. Sometimes your spirit says that something makes sense, your body and mind say that it does not (exp. fasting). sometimes your body wants to do something that it likes but your mind and spirit say that it does not make since (over indulging on fatty food). It is not until after you immerse (trial of your fate) that it makes since to the other two parts. example, when you start eating healthy your body may protest, but if you stick to it, pretty soon, process food does not seem so appealing any more.

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