Levels of Comprehension

If you don’t read Naked Pastor, you should. No, it’s not related to the Catholic sex scandal. Yes, it is a Christian leader courageous enough to bare his thoughts, doubts, and concerns open to the world. If only all religious leaders were so introspective and committed to the health of their congregations.

Pastor Hayworth recently applied Bloom’s Taxonomy to spiritual development. It’s a brilliant exercise, because it provided me with a very simple way to evaluate how useful a belief system is in truly helping its followers achieve their greatest potential. After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the higher up the ladder your belief system pushes you, the greater its value to you individually and to humanity as a whole. Any system that attempts to stop people on one of the lower rungs is probably more interested in power than in truth. The God it serves desires obedience and not enlightenment.

I’d love to see some comments applying this system to various beliefs. I’ll go ahead and provide my old perspective as a Mormon and contrast it with my current belief as an atheist. Quotes below explaining each step on the ladder are from Brother Hayworth.

Knowledge is the lowest form of thinking. This is the accumulation of facts. At this lowest level you can recall data or information. For instance, you might know your scripture verses and be able to recite a creed or know the facts about doctrinal theology.

Mormonism definitely encourages this. We learned songs in Primary, memorised scripture as we got older, chanted in Young Women’s, and at BYU religion courses were required. I had to memorise the Articles of Faith when I was baptised, the Mormon equivalent of Catechism. This is reflected in the culture; Mormon parents generally encourage their children to do well in school. My tendency to gobble up facts is something I’m grateful for, although ironically it set me on the path to seeing through it all.

Comprehension is the next level. Here you begin to understand the meaning of verses and creeds and doctrines. You understand it at a level where you can actually state them in your own words and discuss them. This shows you have a deeper understanding of them than the simple rote knowledge of the first level.

This is also encouraged in Mormonism, although I’ll add the caveat that understanding tends to be guided carefully toward officially accepted interpretations. Lip service is paid to the idea that anybody can read and interpret scripture for themselves, but in general everyone is expected to arrive at fairly uniform conclusions. It’s not a good sign that cognitive dissonance is going to happen at such an early level of thinking skills. It’s a fracture that goes almost all the way to the foundation.

Application is the third level. At this level you not only know your scriptures and some doctrinal theology, but you begin to understand how to apply it to your personal life and real life situations. In other words, scripture and theology is a kind of second nature to you because you apply what you know to novel situations in your life.

Mormons are highly encouraged to apply their religion to their daily lives. Speech, food and drink, clothing, home décor, entertainment, social activities, and friends are all selected based on religious teachings. “Second nature” is a good way to describe the stamp that Mormonism places on members’ behaviour. At this level knowledge and comprehension are fully integrated, but at this level only the exercise of the faith system is going on. There isn’t any self-scrutiny or thinking going on about the larger picture or the significance of these actions. At this level, a Mormon pays tithing, attends church, goes to the temple, and slips slang like G’s (garments), GA (general authority), RM (returned missionary) into daily speech, but without deeper thought than that needed to execute the motions. For example, at this level a Mormon will pay tithing, but will not think about what happens with tithing money once it is paid into the system, nor will that person think about whether or not they approve of what those funds are used for.

Ignorance is bliss, and this is the highest someone can go whilst remaining ignorant and happy. This is the highest most members of my family have ever gotten, which is why they are able to spout out things they have learned from rote repetition, such as “Everyone is born with weaknesses. Some people are born with a risk of becoming alcoholics, and others have the temptation to be gay. They don’t have to give into those temptations.” They neither believe nor disbelieve the things they say, because at this level true belief is impossible. They simply don’t grasp the significance of anything they say, and also don’t grasp the significance of their knee-jerk reactions when somebody challenges the rubbish they spout.

Analysis is the next highest level. The first 3 levels (knowledge, comprehension, application) are the most common levels achieved. Analysis is a more advanced kind of thinking because you can separate the concepts into parts. You begin to see the framework, the under-girding, the skeleton, and the connections in the texts and doctrines. You are beginning to be able to critique the texts and doctrines and their relationship to one another.

It’s interesting that Hayward notes that most people do not progress beyond application of their belief system. I believe this is because beyond this level you have to commit a lot more intellectual resources than most people can handle. It’s not that most people aren’t smart enough to do it; more likely most of them are busy or just don’t care. If they fall within the mainstream of people who are readily accepted by their belief system (for Mormons, this means white, middle-class, straight, cisgender, conservative) then the system probably works for them, so there’s little need to examine it or want to address the parts that are broken. It just works. Very few people comfortable with their system are going to have the time or interest to progress beyond application. This means a disproportionate number of people who progress to analysis are going to be misfits of some kind.

When Mormonism failed me, the sparkle of fairy-dust began to wear off the system that I had believed magic and all-knowing. I began to see the man behind the curtain, and I could not ignore him. I saw how the machine operated, and I saw that it had no safety valves to catch women like me. All it had was a structure that kept me pinned beneath the authority of whatever random man the machine assigned, and my psychological and physical health was in the hands of that man. I was paired up with a bishop who was convinced that if I just prayed a little bit more and tried just a bit harder, my (soon to be ex) husband would come around. He didn’t, and when I stopped coming to the bishop for counsel I suddenly found that there was no place for me in the machine. Unsupervised women in Mormonism are like bolts that have come loose from the machine and fallen to the factory floor. They either need to be screwed back in or discarded.

Whether or not one remains a believer, it is impossible to achieve the stage of analysis without becoming disillusioned. The perfect fairy-story world that existed in stages one, two and three shatters. This is the phase where there is the most anger, as one’s worldview has been completely turned upside down. This is also where those at lower phases dismiss those with legitimate concerns as “angry apostates,” again because they are unable to comprehend anything larger than their world of ingesting knowledge and performing prescribed duties.

I believe that the LDS Church is hostile to this level of thinking and all the levels above it. There is superficial lip service to “progressing in knowledge” but even this term just shoots you back to step one — knowledge. “I know this church is true” is not a belief statement for most Mormons — it’s a statement of fact. Church = true. Anything that would cause a Mormon to examine the structure of the Church will also inevitably lead them to notice its conflicting doctrines and practises with regards to women, polygamy, non-white people, and sexual minorities. The farther up we go from here, the less able a person will be able to be the good little True Believing Mormon that LDS, Inc. wants them to be. The open hostility the Church shows to “the philosophies of men” and the pride Mormons take in its uneducated, anti-intellectual prophets is strong evidence of this.

Synthesis is the fifth level where you begin to build your own structure and pattern of thinking out of the diverse elements from the texts and doctrines. You unite different parts together to form a new kind of whole. You create a new meaning or structure of thought that is uniquely your own. You find a way to assimilate and integrate various elements of thought, even from outside your own tradition or system, into your own way of thinking (or some might say “believing”).

Building your own structure can only come after the spiritual applecart has been upset. After the shattering process of Analysis, we begin to pick up the pieces. Imagine a broken teapot; some people will glue it all back together and put it back to use. It isn’t as pretty or elegant as it once was, but it still makes tea. Others, disgusted with the teapot’s failure to endure the bumps and rattles of scrutiny, scoop it all up and toss it in the bin. Still more will keep some of the prettier shards, repurposing them for a new function or keeping them on the shelf as an artefact of a completed phase of life. This phase is where formerly ideal Mormons realise that there is no going back, and that they must choose a pragmatic approach to their faith system or leave it for one that better matches their new worldview. This is where people begin to figure out labels such as “ex-Mormon,” “Post-Mormon,” and “Formon” (my personal favourite).

Evaluation is the final level. At this level you not only are able to critique the texts and doctrines and their relationship to one another, but you are able to make judgement about the whole thought system and belief system altogether. You can even make judgement about the value of the religious ideas you were taught or that you possess. At this level you evaluate not only the entire system, but its value and relation to other systems. This is the most mature level.

Mormonism values obedience above all else. “Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Don’t go astray,” they teach us in Primary. “Praise to the Man” we sing in Sacrament. I don’t know if I’ve fully reached this level, but I think that I’m prepared to begin thinking about the value of the religious ideas I was brought up with. I do not believe the Mormon church offers the best plan available to humanity. I believe its teachings and practises make it very efficiently self-sustaining. It offers comfort to those who fear death and obliteration by telling them death isn’t for real, and that they don’t have to say goodbye to their families, ever. It’s perfectly understandable why people would want that. But LDS, Inc. uses lies to sell that idea. Even if there is a god and even if there is an afterlife, dishonesty shouldn’t be used to draw people toward it. There are numerous flaws in the process that demonstrate that although LDS, Inc.’s stated goal is to get people into Heaven, what it’s better at is enriching itself as an organisation and leveraging its power over its members. It unapologetically marginalises women, minorities, sexual minorities, intellectuals, and nonconformists, and that is a fatal flaw. It sets its members up for deep distress if they ever dare to venture beyond the first three phases of Bloom’s taxonomy.

Pastor Hayworth always delivers up so much food for thought. If you don’t follow him, he’s @nakedpastor on Twitter and blogs and cartoons regularly at nakedpastor.com.

11 thoughts on “Levels of Comprehension

  1. “I believe that the LDS Church is hostile to this level of thinking and all the levels above it.”

    Sadly, many organized religions are. Kudos to you for seeing the man behind the curtain and hungering for something more.

  2. The truly horrifying thing is, the LDS church isn’t hostile to thinking–however flawed–that supports, or draws support from, church doctrines. Case in point: abusive, woman hating BIL. He constantly rails on about how men are a superior race, a woman’s place is barefoot in the kitchen, and, indeed, claims to have done battle with Satan in his living room. He abuses his wife, and all those around him. And yet, apparently, all that’s OK ’cause he bases his actions on church teachings–a fact which he discusses, loudly, at every opportunity. I’ve seen other situations like this, too; when it comes to the actions of supposedly “righteous” church members (i.e. they come to church, go to the Temple, and pay a full tithe) they’re remarkably unwilling to pay attention.

    I’m not familiar enough with other ultra conservative religions to know whether this is the case elsewhere, so I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on that.

    • It is pretty sick seeing how people pervert the techniques of a genuine quest for enlightenment. But when the “facts” that person bases their worldview on are anti-woman, small wonder that the behaviour encouraged by that world view are anti-woman. I hope that your brother in law can one day be called out by both religious and secular authorities who haven’t got their heads up their arses.

  3. I can only give a perspective of the kind of Catholicism I was raised in, because the Catholic Church, while being a global religion with a centralized authority, is still startlingly varied and diverse, even from parish to parish.

    I know that our parish catechism failed in the way of knowledge. You generally get confirmed in high school, and there were people in my confirmation class who didn’t even know about the doctrine of the Trinity, one of the most basic tenets of the faith I’m sure they didn’t know anything about transubstantiation or any other factual knowledge really, because the catechism program was just not about the memorization of facts/teachings.

    Comprehension and application can’t really happen if you don’t have a foundation of factual knowledge. However, there was an attempt, in the catechism program our parish used, to focus on application – I’d call it formation of morality and conscience.

    The church definitely doesn’t encourage analysis or anything beyond that, although I can say that a wide range of beliefs are tolerated without any serious “disciplinary action” like what you would see in an lds church. Whereas there is close monitoring of what people say in meetings and in temple recommend interviews in Mormonism, in Catholicism there is no real equivalent to that level of supervision. So I can go to church and receive communion even though I am a huge gay rights advocate, feminist who’s against the all-male clergy, who questions the divine origin of the Bible, etc. I am totally vocal about those beliefs, but I would be incredibly surprised if anyone from the local parish contacted me about my being out of touch with Catholic doctrines or if the diocese attempted to have me excommunicated – it just doesn’t happen.

    So while the latter three stages aren’t actively encouraged, they aren’t discouraged the way they are in Mormonism, in my opinion. Nobody tries to hide the misogynistic or bigoted writings of the Church Fathers, etc to protect the image of the institution, and reading “anti-Catholic” materials is certainly not the taboo it is in Mormonism. It’s easy to get educated and they don’t put up obstacles to you analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating your faith and beliefs.

    • Would you say that’s because with Catholicism there’s heavy emphasis on just getting the basic rituals in — Baptism, Confirmation, and Communion — and no other technical requirements are needed to get into Heaven? For Mormons, there are a lot of extra requirements to make it all the way to God’s inner circle — heterosexual marriage, temple attendance, tithing — and these performance-based issues are compulsory, rippling out to many other facets of life.

      • I would say that’s true, but also the fact that the 60’s happened and the Catholic Church (especially in the US) saw a huge loosening up on adherence to doctrines, both theological and moral. The American Catholic Church 50 years ago was probably much more similar to the way you describe Mormonism. In those times the emphasis was definitely on the memorization of theological facts: what is original sin, what is the Eucharist, abortion is evil, being gay is evil, premarital sex is evil, etc. and NOT on formation of conscience. When Vatican II happened, Americans saw it as license to finally think for themselves and institute the same liberations in the church as what was happening in American society at large.

        But in general you are correct; the Catholic Church places the utmost emphasis on the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion and Reconciliation, as the source of salvation, because they teach that these are the moments where we literally encounter Jesus in the physical signs of the rituals and he can give us Grace.

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