In studying Joseph Smith in the 1970s I was struck by how often Joseph Smith would remind the brethren that they did not know as much as they thought they did. He was also clear that he was much more human than they thought and that he did not know as much as he hoped to know or thought he did. He was sharply aware that his knowledge was limited by his language, his experience and his context and that what he could teach and communicate was further limited by the language, experience and contest of his listeners. He also knew that there was knowledge, truth and value he did not have and would surprise audiences (much like Brigham Young did) by pointing out that Methodists and others had truth that he lacked. (cf Discourses of Brigham Young, page 248).
Joseph also liked and enjoyed speculation on Gospel Topics, both his own and that of others. D&C 77 stems from mistaken speculations of another. What is striking about the narrative is that Joseph was pleased with the brother, not offended. Joseph was also grateful for audiences that would let him speculate, make mistakes and not react in outrage. In recorded sermons, we have him telling audiences exactly that.
He also took it as given that:
- when he speculated and relied on logic, he would make mistakes and
- he would make mistakes that would be obvious to listeners.
Now there is a lot to be said about speculating with an audience when the Spirit is present. On the plus side, if a speaker listens to the Spirit as they speak they can learn from where the Spirit guides the discussion. A speaker can learn from hearing, feeling, seeing, hearkening to what of that which is said that the Spirit supports and what it does not support.
On the negative side, it is easy for an audience to mistake speculation for truth and to miss errors when they occur. It is easy for a speaker to perceive the Spirit as an aid or a tool supporting the teaching rather than as a guide and to ignore the times it wanes. Others can draw conclusions that are misleading or that build with logic on a mixed foundation. Even more so when we remember that God’s conversation with us is limited by the limits of our vocabulary and language.
There is reason that God told the brethren to “say nothing by repentance to this generation” (D&C 6:9; 11:9; and cf D&C 14:8 and especially 19:21).
If Joseph Smith was so certain of his own fallibility, I often wonder why we are so often so certain that we know so much more. I wonder what we can be certain of if we are not masters of the core of faith, hope and love.
Think about how often people try to force an interpretation or teaching rather than listen to it in order to learn where it is wrong or where it needs evaluation or correction. If we paid more attention to how teachings and doctrines led us into the true mysteries, to strong faith, greater hope, deeper love, we might learn much more from the Spirit than we can ever gain from logical proofs based on what we think others knew.
To truly learn from early sermons and doctrines we need to reflect not on what we think we know and where the obvious logic takes us, but on what we do not know and what the Spirit might teach us if we do not blind ourselves to the Spirit, supposing we are wise. Few things are as obvious as we might think they are. I truly believe that by being certain of our logic and knowledge, we cut ourselves off from what God could and would teach us.
That is what Joseph Smith tried to teach us to find, what he meant his life to mean on its own terms, what he did when he lacked knowledge.
So, what doctrines am I certain of? That Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. That Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. That the Book of Mormon is the word of God and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is true. I am also certain that now abideth faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity. There is a world of speculation available for entertainment, but seeking to serve the pure of love of Christ should be our true doctrine.