Joseph Smith once wrote:
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? (Joseph Smith-History 1:10)
When I was sixteen years old, so long ago, I read these words and they had a very deep impact upon me because I had lost my faith in the teachings of my childhood. I had been reared an ecumenical Protestant of primarily a Baptist persuasion. And during my early teen years I started to ask the clergymen of my acquaintence questions about God, the Bible, and what we believe as Baptists. And the more questions I asked, and the more they failed to answer in any way that I found satisfying, the more certain I became that their teachings taught a religious whole within which were numerous self-contradictions. And I instinctively understood that what there were teaching must therefore be false because truth cannot contradict itself. If 2+2=4, it cannot also equal 5. I was more certain of this than I was that there is a God. Even today I am more certain of this than I am of God's existence, or my own existence for that matter. I know that truth, if I ever find it, will be perfectly self-consistent. Because an idea or system of ideas that is self-contradictory is always false.
So in this frame of mind, imagine how thrilled I was to learn of another young man about my own age who had questions about religion who also found the answers a mass of self-contradiction and confusion. Like myself, young Joseph knew that because the various denominations of his day contradicted each other on very basic things, they might all be wrong. But there was no way that they could all be right. Truth cannot contradict itself.
I've pondered this over the years and my understanding of this important truth has grown. For one thing I have come to know and love another thing that Joseph Smith wrote on exactly the same subject. He wrote:
"by proving contraries, truth is made manifest"
Even though I am not a student of philosophy, logic or mathematics, I have always thought this to mean that when two things that are certainly true seem to contradict each other, there must be a resolution of that contradiction on some level which we have not yet considered. And that by finding what that resolution is, we can learn new truth. Why? It is because two things that are true cannot possibly contradict each other. They may superficially seem to contradict each other, but there must be some greater perspective from which a resolution of the apparent contradiction becomes apparent. And if we are really interested in seeking out the truth, then it is our duty to find that greater perspective. And if there is no level or perspective at which the resolution becomes apparent, if they actually do contradict each other, it is absolutely impossible for both of them to be true.
Isn't this what the young Joseph meant when he said that all of the churches might be false, but they could not possibly all be true because they directly contradicted each other on various points of doctrine? Can you see how this thought about proving contraries relates to his statement in JS-H 1:10? Were all of the churches wrong, or was one of them right and all of the others wrong? Obviously they could not all be right because they contradicted one another. This is the way the man's mind worked. And it thrilled me as a 16 year old teenager to hear about this from the Mormon missionaries because it is also the way that my mind works. It was for this reason that I had already rejected the traditional Christian faith of my childhood before I ever met my first Mormon.
Well today on a whim I did some Googling to see if I could find out more about the Joseph Smith quotation about proving contraries. And I also went looking for what Joseph might have meant by "contraries." What are they? We don't talk like this any more. It is not part of our culture to "prove contraries" whatever that is. I didn't even know what a contrary was. So I looked it up in a number of different sources. And this is what I found:
Elsewhere I find it defined as "a logical relation such that two propositions are contraries if both cannot be true but both can be false."
This is what drove Joseph into the woods that glorious morning of the First Vision. He was intelligent enough to understand that all of the churches might be wrong, but if not, only one of them could be right. Because truth cannot contradict itself. As Latter-day Saints we ought to remember this important truth better than any other people in the world because we remind ourselves nearly every day because of the clothes we wear. Certainly truth is circumscribed into one great, self-consistent whole.