The Completeness Assumption

I recently came across a post by Ben Spackman (who excels at being my older brother, among other things) about seer stones, and noticed something new. 

“While on my mission in France, I learned about Joseph’s use of the seerstone, along with the Urim and Thummim/ Nephite “interpreters,” and eventually nothing at all, in translating the Book of Mormon. I suspect my source was something from FARMS (now the Maxwell Institute), since many of their books and papers referred to it. I had learned some intellectual humility early on in my mission and assumed I knew little, so I naturally took it in stride along with all the other  new things I was learning.” (Emphasis mine).

Ben’s reaction to potentially strange information (translating via rocks and then nothing at all) was affected by how much he assumed he already knew about the topic. I had never thought about this before. It led me to a hypothesis:  when we assume we know little and embrace intellectual humility, our ability to digest information about murkier church issues improves. 

The opposite also holds. When we assume we know everything and haven’t been taught intellectual humility, we struggle to digest information about murky church issues. 

[Now, before I say more, I want to point out two things about assumptions. First, most of our assumptions are subconscious– we don’t see them until something challenges them, like getting married (you load the dishwasher like that?) or traveling to a foreign country (that’s not how you’re supposed to line up). Second, we inherit our religious assumptions from our environment (parents, congregations, local leadership, etc.) 

This combination means that, when it comes to issues about church history and doctrine, those who struggle are not to blame for the subconscious assumptions they’ve inherited.]

I think many church members have inherited a subconscious assumption that checking off the “good Mormon” boxes (going to seminary, church and temple attendance, serving a mission, etc) teaches us all we need to know about a topic. This is one of the big reasons some church members get rocked by new information: we think we know it already.

For lack of a better term, I call this the Completeness Assumption. We assume our knowledge of these topics is complete. Once we’re aware that this assumption exists, we can process it, examine it, and evaluate it. 

In my evaluation, it’s a faulty assumption born of mismatched purposes. 

The bulk of a typical Latter-day Saint’s knowledge comes through church-established vehicles: Sunday school lessons, manuals, seminary classes, general conference talks, missionary discussions, church art, etc. Historically, there have been two purposes to these mediums: to teach about Jesus Christ and to be “uplifting.” Until recently, historical completeness or examination of tricky issues has not been a priority. The Joseph Smith papers, the gospel topics essays, and Wayment’s translation of the NT are evidence that the church is striving to create resources that do make those things a priority.

This inherited Completeness Assumption explains the reaction of many members when they hear about historically tricky issues: “I’ve been a member my whole life, served a mission, I listen at every general conference and I’ve never ONCE heard about [issue X].” We struggle to process the information, or worse, we discard anything new as anti-Mormon propaganda. Why? Because nothing has ever challenged the Completeness Assumption before.

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