Last Thursday, The Daily Universe ran an article reporting on a lecture by Robert Stake where he warned about universities’ failure to engage in self-criticism, which in turn can lead to vanity and self-righteousness.
As a person who has studied or worked at seven different universities while building a career on the intellect, I believe that this is indeed a widespread and ever-present reality or danger. It is not only a problem in higher learning; it is a universal human tendency that affects the educated and uneducated alike. It is applicable to Americans and foreigners, to Latter-day Saints and members of other faiths, to liberals and conservatives, and to you and me in many of our communications.
It is only by recognizing that we don’t have the full picture that we can truly enlarge and deepen that same picture. Rigidity of mind is the intellectual manifestation of the natural man. This is rooted in characteristics such as pride, fear and laziness, as opposed to the spiritual man who is built on humility, faith, love and engagement toward progression.
In our democratic society, where so much is focused on our freedom to say whatever we please, the intellectual natural man is often manifested in our failure to pay due attention to the value or strength of our communication. Fear of seeing our opinion falling short of perfection becomes more important than learning and growing from our exchanges. Being in the right becomes more important than being “right,” or being the kind of person that God wants us to be; yet, Jesus made it clear that His is a Gospel of internal substance rather than one of just “getting” the right answer.
How can we put off the intellectual natural man? As King Benjamin states, it begins first of all with humility.
In communications, I believe that humility means listening with real intent and with the belief that we can always learn more. Instead, discussions on polarizing issues make heavy use of defensive and attacking mechanisms of communication such as name-calling, false dichotomies, slogans, and distracting fallacies. We end up talking past each other with an overall lack of depth in addressing issues at their core. In other words, we cannot disregard or completely ignore the concern of those with whom we disagree.
For example, as a person who has always supported the institution of marriage between a man and a woman I do not appreciate blank statements claiming that the issue of gay marriage is not about the definition of marriage or that it has nothing to do with religious freedom. These are discussion stoppers that refuse any value in my perspective and in what I may contribute to the discussion. Similarly, on my part, I should not completely disregard the issue of equality or of gay concerns for discrimination. A good example of discussing the tension of the issue with actual facts can be seen in Sunday’s Deseret News’ “Colliding causes” which highlights the Church’s reasonable approach to the question.
Second, humility means introspective honesty, where we examine our motivations and recognize when they are not as much based on the search for truth as they are on fear or insecurity — whether realistic or unrealistic. We can still value and hold our deeply held beliefs without anxiously protecting them from every possible challenge. To my World Religions classes I often say that the Church does not become any truer by focusing on the perceived negatives (which are often misconceptions anyway) of other faiths. After all, both love and faith cast out fear.
Finally, humility requires consistent effort. Good reasoning requires hard work because of the many logical fallacies committed in our arguments and discussions. Every university student should learn about fallacies in a philosophy course and be reminded about them continuously throughout life. It is not easy to make a sound argument but the ability to reason and discuss, to communicate and to dialogue, is worth our best efforts.
Ultimately, as we listen, practice introspective honesty, and work hard to refine our reasoning skills we become better individuals as we absorb and reflect God’s light and love to those around us.
Mauro Properzi is a visiting assistant professor of religion at BYU. This viewpoint represents his opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinions of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.