To help concretize the essential need of an open folk belief (OFB) LDS community, I will illustrate a case example regarding a theological issue for which there are substantial gaps from authoritative Latter-day Saint sources. For this fictional example, imagine two individuals, Susan and Gary, having a conversation about their differing beliefs regarding the foreknowledge of God. There are differing LDS views concerning whether God has exhaustive specific foreknowledge, although it is commonly assumed that one position – the affirmative one – is the official position of the Church. Therefore, this position is a classical case in which an folk belief is commonly confused to be a CFB (closed folk belief).
For our scenario, let us assume that Susan holds an affirmative view and Gary holds a negative one. A conversation ensues between the two in which they become aware of their differing positions. Susan, holding the more popular view, is surprised at Gary’s belief, and it is difficult for her not to wonder whether he is a heretic – didn’t Bruce R. McConkie say something about that? However, being the open-minded person that she is, Susan postpones judgment and inquires further about Gary’s theology: “What does it mean for you to believe that God does not have exhaustive specific foreknowledge?” Gary replies that this view is important for him to hold because he has trouble reconciling his agency with such an exhaustive view of foreknowledge. Like William James, Gary has trouble with God knowing everything that will happen in the future – such a view would entail that there are no real possibilities, no genuine contributions that he can make to the world.
Susan herself has thought about this issue, and she responds, “Well, couldn’t there be a way that God could know everything and yet your actions still are genuinely free?” Gary answers, “I suppose I am open to that being the case – that there is some way in which the two can be reconciled. I mean, if I go to Heaven and God tells me, ‘Guess what? I really did know everything you were going to do,’ then I’ll probably be fine with that. But where I’m not sure right now what is true, I am more comfortable believing that even God, though He has tremendous foresight, does not know with certainty what I will do tomorrow.”
Susan is trying to understand Gary’s beliefs, but she is still having trouble, even on pragmatic grounds. So, wisely, she fields him another pragmatic-oriented question. “Well, that sort of makes sense to me . . . But tell me this – how can you have complete trust in a God that doesn’t have absolute knowledge of the future?” Gary explains, “This is the best way that I can explain it. Imagine yourself playing a chess game with Bobby Fischer. How certain would he be that he would defeat you?” Susan replies, “Pretty certain. I’d say 99.9 percent.” Gary continues, “But could he predict with such a high accuracy your first move? Or your second? And so on?” Susan answers, “I think I know where you’re getting at. Of course not.” Gary resumes, “So there’s a sense in which we could say that your moves are genuinely free, even though your defeat is almost certainly assured and your individual moves cannot be predicted.” Susan nods. “So my view of God,” Gary continues, “is that He knows, with certainty, that He is in charge. I can’t explain it – there’s just something about His being God that makes that knowledge self-evident for Him. But that doesn’t mean that He has to have 100 percent exhaustive specific foreknowledge, analogous to Bobby Fischer’s not having it and yet being quite secure in his victory over someone like you in a chess match.”
As a result of this conversation, Susan comes to a better understanding of Gary’s position because she understands it in terms of pragmatic grounds. She realizes that, in her opinion, Gary is not a heretic – at least not simply on the grounds of this one belief – and his belief appears to be genuine. She is quite comfortable with the fact that she and Gary are worshipping the same God in spite of their differing theological viewpoints. Both folk theologies, from Susan’s perspective, are “true in so far forth” that they lead to important pragmatic ends. Had she immediately written off Gary’s folk theology from the beginning, rather than engaging him in pragmatic-oriented dialogue, she might have not come to this awareness.
There are several possibilities for further dialogue and exploration at this point. The attention could now turn to Susan’s folk theology and why it is important for her to believe that God has exhaustive specific foreknowledge – hopefully in the same spirit of open-mindedness and pragmatic meaning. Susan and Gary could each reevaluate their own positions on the matter. It could be, for example, that Susan finds herself being undecided on the issue. In so doing, she might realize that her own folk theology was simply an abstraction that got in the way of her actual relationship with God. In other words, there would be new possibilities opening up for Susan – in very important ways! Such a result would be an example of how an OFB community can serve as a check against naïve commitments to folk theologies with limited pragmatic import (especially dogmatic ones, though this wasn’t the case with Susan).
It is very important, from an OFB standpoint, to not strong arm individuals in believing a certain folk theology. Doing so could have disastrous pragmatic consequences! This guideline is especially important for parents and lay ministers who serve in leadership, teaching, or missionary positions. An OFB community does not suggest that a person has to consider all folk theologies as being equal with one’s own. If such equality were offered, it would be difficult to see how folk theologies would be very meaningful – it certainly would be difficult to act as if they were true, in the spirit of James. Indeed, from an OFB perspective, one could even believe that a certain folk theology would probably be better for a certain individual to hold, in terms of having wider and deeper pragmatic import for oneself and others. Nonetheless, it would also be important to recognize that such a folk theology might not presently be an option for that person, given his or her present circumstances, beliefs, and experience.