Faith is Cherry-picking

Cherry-picking gets a bad rap. I can understand why. Cherry-picking can easily be confused with, or turn into, confirmation bias. But the two, while similar, are not the same.

Cherry-pick: To pick out the best or most desirable items from a list or group, especially to obtain some advantage or to present something in the best possible light.

Confirmation bias: A cognitive bias towards confirmation of the hypothesis under study.

Cherry-picking in matters of faith is simply the act of choosing the best, most desirable items which produce the best fruits. Confirmation bias is settling on a hypothesis then only choosing items which confirm it. The latter is often static and assumes matters are already settled. The former is often dynamic and relies on ongoing agency.

Cherry-picking isn’t without its risks. As mentioned, it can lead to confirmation bias. And without wisdom, it can turn into relativism. But the opposite, dogma, has risks too.

Dogma: An authoritative principle, belief or statement of opinion, especially one considered to be absolutely true and indisputable, regardless of evidence or without evidence to support it.

Dogma also risks confirmation bias – in fact, it requires it. Rather than requiring ongoing agency, dogma requires passive surrender.

But here’s the thing, faith has always involved cherry-picking – whether personally or institutionally. It has lead to both good and bad

Take the history of the Bible:

  • Pre-exilic Jews cherry-picked ancient myths and surrounding legal codes.
  • Exilic Jews cherry-picked Mosaic law to understand their exile.
  • Ezra cherry-picked which peoples and families were pure enough to help rebuild the second temple.
  • Post-exilic Josian reform cherry-picked Deuteronomistic codes to centralize and unify kingdom and religion.
  • Jesus cherry-picked Jewish laws to uphold and laws to let go of or “fulfill”.
  • Jesus and his disciples cherry-picked Jewish prophecy and re-contextualized it to explain his mission and ministry.
  • Jesus challenges us to cherry-pick law so that it hangs on the two great commandments of love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Paul cherry-picked eschatological understandings of Jesus’ teachings.
  • Paul tells us to accept all the brings us to faith, hope, and charity.
  • Various Jewish and Christian traditions cherry-picked which scriptural accounts to canonize and which not to.
  • Etc.

And in Mormonism and the Latter-day Saint church:

  • Joseph Smith cherry-picked, well, everything he could get his hands on (I love this about him and this faith).
  • In the Book of Mormon, Mormon and Moroni cherry-picked what to include in their accounts.
  • In the Book of Mormon, Moroni challenges us to cherry pick things which draw us to Christ and to reject things which don’t.
  • Joseph Smith cherry-picked scripture to develop its ideas of temple and ordinance work for the dead.
  • Joseph Smith cherry-picked to anchor revelations about multiple heavenly kingdoms to scriptures.
  • Joseph Smith cherry-picked scriptures about Abraham to justify polygamy.
  • Later, Wilford Woodruff cherry-picked scripture to justify moving away from polygamy.
  • Brigham Young (and others – most everyone at that time) cherry-picked scripture to justify racism – for Mormonism, barring blacks from going to the temple and being ordained to the priesthood.
  • Later, Spencer Kimball cherry-picked scripture to end barring blacks from temple and priesthood.
  • In the mid-20th century, the LDS church cherrypicked its own scripture and teachings to correlate teachings.
  • It has in some ways cherry-picked post-WWII nuclear family norms and made them eternal.
  • It cherry-picked a church policy developed in the 20th century regarding children in polygamous families to justify applying it in the 21st century towards children of LGBT parents.
  • Later, it cherry-picked and re-emphasized different principles to justify ending that policy towards children of LGBT parents.
  • Etc.

Now, if you’re reading this list and are a bit upset by the characterization of these things as “cherry-picking”, remember the definition:

Cherry-pick: To pick out the best or most desirable items from a list or group, especially to obtain some advantage or to present something in the best possible light.

That sounds an awful lot like the 13th Article of Faith:

we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.

How are we to choose “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” without cherry-picking? Is everything “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy”? And if not, how can we choose? We need to see both the good and the bad in order to choose (whitewashing is one risk of cherry-picking). I think another reason there’s an aversion to cherry-picking is often it is seen as arbitrary. Certainly, if one chooses matters of faith arbitrarily that is problematic. But as the above illustrates, the question isn’t whether we are cherry-picking or not. The question is what justifications are we using to cherry pick what we did. That’s very similar to hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics: The study or theory of the methodical interpretation of text, especially holy texts.

Cherry-picking is simply using our agency and morality to examine what is good and what is not, then using our agency to select the good. Cherry-picking is owning our faith. Cherry-picking is living, breathing, bleeding faith. And cherry-picking can be a deeply revelatory process.

We can choose poorly. If I cherry-pick to gratify my pride, to cover my sins, to abuse power over others, or to tear others down, I am abusing this agency (see Doctrine & Covenants 121). But pretending we’re not cherry picking just means we don’t understand how what we have inherited has already been cherry-picked for us. If we are to follow the Mormon creed to seek out “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” or to accept “one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’… to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. 5:499) then we’ll need to develop the ability to prayerfully cherry-pick. Another term for this may be discernment or personal revelation.

President Nelson spoke about the critical need for increased personal revelation:

“in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost. My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation.”

April 2018 General Conference ‘Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives

I agree wholeheartedly with this. In the information age with exponentially increasing information and access to it, gifts such as discernment or cherry-picking become vital – a new form of literacy. As revelation involves “cherry-picking” as we apply discernment and interpretation, we need to develop a Christ-centered hermeneutic to govern revelation itself by. How can we discern from amongst all the “cherries” (so to speak) we’re surrounded by in the church, in our thoughts, and in our lives? I’ve written about what I feel is a Christ-centered hermeneutic. Here is a quick summary:

  • Jesus tells us to “hang all the law and the prophets” on the two great commandments: love God and love thy neighbor (Mat. 22:37-40).
  • Paul warned than prophecy, without charity, will fail (1 Cor. 13:8).
  • Moroni said anything inspires us to do good and believe in Christ comes from Christ (Moroni 7:14-16).
  • Joseph Smith taught about the limits of priesthood authority (Doctrine and Covenants 121:36-37, 41-42).
  • John said that we must overcome fear and put love first as God has (1 John 4:18-19).

If I run across something in the gospel that doesn’t pass these filters, I feel no obligation to it — no matter who said it or where it came from. And, conversely, when I do run across something that passes these filters — no matter where it came from — I feel obligated to accept it, even when it requires repentance on my part. General Conference, scriptures, talks, lectures, books, blog posts, articles, conversations, testimonies, lessons, impressions, ceremonies, covenants, etc. I seek to run it all through this hermeneutic of Christlike charity. And when I do, I find the LDS church can be a great tool for my continued discipleship – even though it also requires my discarding rotten “cherries” along the way that I prayerfully find are “not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” (Deiter Uchtdorf, ‘Come, Join with Us‘, October 2013 General Conference).

Patrick Mason used the analogy of a shopping cart with items we no longer need or want to describe this need for discernment:

One of the problems we have in Mormonism is that we have loaded too much into the Truth Cart. And then when anything in the cart starts to rot a bit, or look unseemly upon further inspection, some have a tendency to overturn the entire cart or seek a refund for the whole lot. We have loaded so much into the Truth Cart largely because we have wanted to have the same kind of certainty about our religious claims—down to rather obscure doctrinal issues—as we do about scientific claims. . .

Over the years the church leadership and laity have also done our religion no favors by putting more in the cart than the cart could possibly bear. . . .Many of the things which trouble people are things that we probably should never have been all that dogmatic about in the first place. I find that a little humility about our doctrine, especially given the contingencies of its historical development, goes a long way in remaining satisfied with the whole…

FairMormon 2016 Conference, ‘The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age

Avoiding any or all cherry-picking is what may lead us to “overturn the entire cart” or throw the baby out with the bathwater. So embrace cherry-picking; it’s what leads us to the fruit of living faith. But don’t treat it lightly. Use it to take responsibility for and own your faith, what you believe, and why you believe it. Allow it to give you prophetic authority in your own life as you seek personal revelation. But also allow it to lead to your own repentance as you answer the call to change to become like God. Apply a Christ-centered hermeneutic. And, importantly, be patient with yourself and with your fellow cherry-pickers.