Maps, Models, and Mormonism

Note: I wrote this on Facebook and needed to publish it somewhere. Originally written July 18, 2018

I shared this in a combined lesson to the 12-18 year olds at church today. The video is six minutes and it’ll take 5-10 to read through my ramblings. These are rough-draft ideas, so feel free to pick it apart. I’m a fan of intelligent disagreement.

Maps and Models

First, we watched this video on maps and models. It’s pretty fun if you’re into history/cartography/learning stuff in general. This post will make much more sense if you watch it.

Then, I recapped the video. Since it’s impossible to render anything in three dimensions perfectly in two-dimensional space, all maps are models. They are simplifications that cannot completely portray all of the information they represent. The mapmaker’s goal determines the form a map takes and determine its weaknesses/strengths. Every map will imperfectly show a 3d object in 2d space, and some aspect of a map must, therefore, be “wrong.” 

Example, the Mercator projection is fantastic if you want an easy way to calculate the angle you should take to sail from point A somewhere in Europe to point B somewhere in the Americas. To fulfill that purpose, the Mercator project distorts country size. Looking at the Mercator projection, you’d think Greenland and Africa are roughly the same in size when Africa is roughly 14 times larger. So, Mercator is a good map for navigation (which we don’t really use any more thanks to GPS) but terrible for country size. 

How does this apply to Mormonism? 

A lot (most?) of what we learn in the church is a model. When we talk about the atonement as a bridge over a gulf of misery (Helaman 3:27-30) or as death and hell as a monster that Jesus helps us escape from (2 Nephi 9:10) or as Jesus standing between us and justice, making intercession… these are three different ways to model the atonement. Modeling the atonement is akin to trying to model a 3-D object in 2-D space. 

As such, our models of spiritual truth will have limitations similar to the limitations of map-making. Our attempts to describe truth will be simplifications that are unable to capture the whole, and in some applications may be wildly inaccurate. 

Also, the usefulness of our religious models will change over time. In Old Testament times, the chief conflicts of the day were war and death. God is seen as a Lord of Hosts (literally Lord of Armies). Today, most of us are unfamiliar with war. We struggle instead with loving our neighbor, with being forgiving but holding to our principles, with mental health issues, and making enough money to support a family, etc. As such, the model of God as the Lord of Armies isn’t as useful to us. We see him as a personal God, the God who weeps, Jesus who turned over tables at the temple and also said, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Just like the Mercator projection, the usefulness of the model of Lord of Hosts has changed since the world has changed. 

When we grow up and find that something doesn’t fit the model we were taught of the gospel/church/history/scriptures when we were in primary, are we to discard the whole thing? Do we stop using maps altogether because every map is, of necessity, inaccurate? Or do we recognize that models have different purposes and different problems? When we learn Greenland isn’t the size of Africa, do we reject all maps? 

Obviously, we don’t. We adapt our models. 

When we find that “God answers prayers” doesn’t mean the same thing it did when we were five, should we reject prayer altogether, or should our knowledge of prayer mature and adapt to new information? When we learn Joseph Smith was a prophet as children and then learn about polygamy, do we reject him altogether as a prophet or do we take a closer look at our model of him and adapt it? 

In short, we learn a very simplified model of the church as children in the church. Some never grow out of this model. Some come into contact with information that seems to contradict the model. When we run into that contradiction, some reject the model altogether, and others adapt their models. In an ideal world, our knowledge of spiritual things should change as we grow and learn new things.

However, no matter how much we learn, our knowledge is based on models that fail to capture the whole. We should always be open to adapting our spiritual knowledge to new things that we learn.

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