God Speaks to Us in Ways We Can Understand, FairMormon Speaker Says
Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
- God modifies His communication to fit the mortal capacity for understanding.
It is not humanly possible to fully understand God’s mind and will, or even His communications, Michael Ash asserted in his address August 3 at the FairMormon Conference.
“We are trapped in black-and-white TVs, even though color signals go racing above our heads,” said Ash, author of Shaken Faith Syndrome and other works in defense of the Mormon faith. FairMormon is an organization dedicated to that purpose, though it is not affiliated with the Church.
Ash’s black-and-white TV metaphor was his way of explaining that God’s divine thoughts are so far above those of mortal men and women that He modifies His communication to fit the mortal capacity for understanding.
“Heavenly Father is aware of our limitations and knows the factors that contribute to our limitations,” he said. “Despite our deficiencies, however, He also knows how to communicate important directives as we are able to receive them.”
He cited the passage in Doctrine and Covenants 1:24, “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”
Thus, Ash said, “God must descend to our level and speak our language in order for us to comprehend.”
An example Ash cited of one of the servants of God employing this concept is in the conversation between the missionary Ammon and the Lamanite king Lamoni, as recounted in Alma 18. Ammon asked Lamoni if he believed that there is a God.
Lamoni replied, “I do not know what that meaneth.”
Ammon then asked, “Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?”
When the king answered, “Yea,” Ammon replied, “This is God.”
“Critics have tried to use this passage to say, ‘See? The Book of Mormon teaches that God is spirit,’” Ash said. “Well, they completely miss the point of the exchange. Ammon was trying to explain who God was by using concepts which Lamoni understood. Ammon accommodated his discourse so it made sense to Lamoni. … The details could be explained later. The initial purpose was for Ammon to explain the basic principle.”
Ash said the recognition of one’s limited ability to accurately hear God’s words is found in at least three layers: receiving the word of God, recording it, and recontextualizing it.
“Each individual or prophet will be unique in their ability to accurately hear the word of God,” he said, “the accuracy or completeness of which might depend on the person’s sphere of responsibility, worthiness, education, culture, circumstance, and expectations.”
Another layer of complication is added in recording the words of God in the weakness of human language, Ash explained. “Words do not have a plain meaning. They only have meaning in context of a language, culture, time frame, and so forth.”
Readers in turn automatically recontextualize the words according to their own culture and context, he said, and some ambiguity is inevitable.
“Revelation will unavoidably and necessarily reflect to some degree the receiver’s human limitations,” Ash said. “The Book of Mormon reflects the recontextualization of not only each author and each redactor … but also that of the translator and each reader. Joseph’s revelations as well as his speculations are also colored by the patina of his environment, because he was human, and that’s how the mind works. But the tinting of mortal minds doesn’t preclude a belief that those instructions also reflect divine input.”
Ash said the Lord in His wisdom knows that His children are unable to escape the boundaries of their psychological, cognitive, and cultural limitations while they remain mortal. “He knows they will get things wrong, describe things inaccurately, point to nonexistent evidence while rejecting very real evidence. … Knowing all the challenges, God also knows that the only way we can understand the important and basic principles of discipleship is by having His teachings revealed in the manner of our language, so that the weak things will become strong enough to put us on a course to bring us back home to the Father.”
He closed by citing Ether 12:27, that if men humble themselves before God, He will show them their weaknesses and make weak things become strong unto them.
Michael Ash speaks to the FairMormon Conference on the subject of God adapting His communication to the capacity of mortals to understand it, August 3, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.