On bracketing the truth

It is common, in some circles, to hear people talking about “bracketing” truth claims—to lay aside any consideration of whether certain ideas (often with religious implication) are true, and simply talk about the ideas in an entirely secular context. For example, one might discuss the resurrection of Jesus without trying to address the idea of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. Instead, one might focus on what early Christians understood by the claim “Jesus is risen.”

Such an approach can be appropriate, at times.

Unfortunately, those who adopt it have a depressing tendency to declare that their approach is the only legitimate way to do valid scholarship on the topic. Thus, anyone who does not bracket the truth claims or implications of the resurrection is said to obviously be engaged only in polemics, or apologetics, or narrow sectarian discourse unworthy of attention or respect. To challenge such notions in print is seen as boorish and unbecoming. Curiously, this perspective is generally just asserted—not argued with evidence and logic—and generally comes heavily larded with a large dollop of disdain. (I speak, on that front, from some personal experience.)

But, leaving aside the obvious intellectual problems which such a stance raises, there are substantial risks for the Christian disciple, for the covenant Latter-day Saint.

Check your religion at the academy door?

All too often, this type of approach is essentially “checking your religion at the door.” But, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was pretty scathing toward anyone who’d consider that, in any context:

We check our religion at the door”? Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never “check your religion at the door.” Not ever.

My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead.

“Check your religion at the door”! I was furious (emphasis in original).[1]

It is true that the “at all times” and “in all places” and “in all things” would seem to leave relatively little wiggle room—especially when the subject of one’s work bears directly on that witness of God. I don’t see how a Christian could approach the resurrection neutrally, and I think it would be spiritually dangerous to try, and intellectually self-deceptive to believe one could.

Let Your Faith Show

Elder Russell M. Nelson seems to be of the same mind as Elder Holland, and applied the ideas specifically to political, academic, and intellectual work:

Clinicians, academicians, and politicians are often put to a test of faith. In pursuit of their goals, will their religion show or will it be hidden? Are they tied back to God or to man?

I had such a test decades ago when one of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside.

Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I was being asked to hide my faith. I did not comply with my colleague’s request. I let my faith show!

In all professional endeavors, rigorous standards of accuracy are required. Scholars cherish their freedom of expression. But full freedom cannot be experienced if part of one’s knowledge is ruled “out-of-bounds” by edicts of men.[2]

If that’s what he thinks about medicine—a subject relatively untouched by most LDS doctrines—what of fields that touch LDS truth claims more intimately?

Every essay a testimony?

Does this mean, then, that every written work need include a bearing of testimony? Hardly—the audience and venue may or may not make that appropriate. But, C.S. Lewis’ intellectual mentor, George MacDonald, gave a wise caution:

Is every Christian expected to bear witness? One who believes must bear witness. One who sees the truth must live witnessing to it. Is our life then a witnessing to the truth? When contempt is cast on the truth, do we smile? [When the truth is] wronged in our presence do we make no sign that we hold by it?… I do not say we are called upon to dispute and defend [against falsehood] with logic and argument, but we are called upon to show that we are on the other side… The soul that loves the truth and tries to be true will know when to speak and when to be silent. But the true man will never look as if he did not care. We are not bound to say all that we think, but we are bound not even to look [like] what we do not think.[3]

Sadly, too many are so worried that their faith might show, that they end up looking like that which they do not really believe, and do not really think.

This impression is only strengthened when they attack, ridicule, or with a sneer dismiss others who do let their faith show more overtly in their academic work. One wonders if this is to avoid feeling guilty for their own lapses, or if it is part and parcel of assuring others that they really are on the academic, secularized “team.”

“Satan need not get everyone to be like Cain or Judas….He needs only to get able men … to see themselves as sophisticated neutrals.”[4]

Such decisions cannot but have spiritual consequences—what one starts doing merely to avoid making academic waves soon shapes one’s views. That which we defend and advocate—or which we refuse to defend or advocate—affects what we end up believing. This should not surprise us, if we consistently exclude (or actively avoid) spiritual evidence, since such evidence cannot but bear on many questions of ultimate importance:

In our own time, Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon constitute stumbling blocks for many—around or over which they cannot get—unless they are meek enough to examine all the evidence at hand, not being exclusionary as a result of accumulated attitudes in a secular society. Humbleness of mind is the initiator of expansiveness of mind (emphasis added).[5]

Compartmentalization and citizenship

Thus, compartmentalization or bracketing has real risks:

The mind can become “hardened in pride” (Daniel 5:20; Habakkuk 1:11). And it can also engage in self-deception, as Korihor finally acknowledged (Alma 30:48–50). The mind can let itself become defensively compartmentalized, a fortress astride the path to faith (emphasis added).[6]

And, some of that risk derives from the “incessant requirements” of an academy jealous of our mental and procedural allegiance:

For the academician in his search for truth and in his efforts for its preservation or dissemination, the admiration and esteem of his peers is both useful and desirable. But these too can be easily corrupted into an inordinate desire for “the praise of men.” Sophistry can come to be preferred to simplicity. The language of scholarship, necessary in its realm, can come to be preferred to the language of faith. Once again, even for the person of faith, the incessant requirements of such associations can come to cloud one’s perspective.[7]

But, if we were to follow the apostles on this point, doesn’t that risk putting one’s academic career or reputation in potential jeopardy? Yes, indeed it may. But, we were warned about such risks:

For one reason, it is unfashionable to be spiritual. A genius possessed of religious faith is sometimes tolerated among colleagues in the business, academic, or political world. His bilingual ability to converse in the language of his professional realm and in the realm of faith is noted but not often applauded.[8]

Still, as Elder Maxwell cautioned years ago:

The orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar should remember that his citizenship is in the Kingdom and that his professional passport takes him abroad into his specialty. It is not the other way around.[9]

Ultimately, if my citizenship is not obvious, do I perhaps have a problem?


[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling,” devotional address, January 2012.

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Let Your Faith Show,” general conference, April 2014.

[3] George MacDonald, Creation in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1976), 142. Elder Holland quoted a portion of this, and replaced “think” with “believe”—I think either or both apply.

[4] Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 88.

[5] Neal A. Maxwell, Meek and Lowly (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 76.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, Whom the Lord Loveth: The Journey of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2012), kindle location 813.

[7] Neal A. Maxwell, Sermons Not Spoken (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 10–11.

[8] Sermons Not Spoken, 12.

[9] Deposition of a Disciple, 18.