Guest Post: The World's Perspective
In LDS Church rhetoric we often talk about “a worldly perspective.” A common question in Sunday School is, “what does the world teach us about this topic?” As members of the church we supply ready answers for these types of questions. In these circumstances the sunday school teacher is asking us to contrast what the LDS Church teaches us about a topic vs. what the world teaches about that topic. Here is an example of this kind of speech from a recent Ensign article about dating “The world’s way; find someone who fills my needs. The Lord’s way; become selfless and service-oriented.”
Growing up, nothing struck me as odd about these questions. However, as I receive training as a psychologist I find these types of questions and statements puzzling. When we ask a Sunday School class to tell us what the world teaches us about a given topic, what do we mean by “the world.” Do we mean the whole world including every culture? Are we talking about current popular ideas in American culture? Or are we talking about what Hollywood teaches us? Psychologists look at understanding and explaining variation in the human experience. So as a psychologist, if I think about “the world’s perspective” I would have to say that there are a huge variety of perspectives out there and it would be hard to summarize the “world’s perspective” into one statement.
It appears that these questions aren’t aimed at eliciting an accurate description of how different groups of people feel about a topic. Rather, when we use this language we want to set up a contrast between guidelines that the LDS Church has given us and ideas that are popular in our current society. I believe this language stems from scriptural language such as:
1 John 2
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.
17 And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
1 John 14
17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.
19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.
22 Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
It appears that in the scriptures there is a clear contrast between God’s view on things and a worldly perspective. While I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with conceptualizing things this way, there are some misconceptions that stem from this line of thinking we need to be careful of. First of all, we need to avoid an “us” vs. “them” mentality. LDS people pride themselves in being in the world, but not of the world. We like being distinct, and in many ways we are. However, we should avoid the misconception that we believe x while the rest of the world believes y. This is false in that many people share many of our beliefs, and it is also false because it reduces the wide variety of opinions that exist about a given topic into just two. As members of our society we should try to learn about and understand the perspectives of others. People appreciate it when you sincerely try to understand where they are coming from.
Second, the way that we often word “the world’s perspective” in LDS settings may only represent how a small portion of the population actually feels. For example, in an LDS Sunday School class in which the instructor asks the class what the world teaches us about sexual relationships outside of marriage I commonly hear the response, “The world teaches us we should have sex with whoever we want with no regards for the other person’s feelings or a commitment to them. You should just focus on what you can get out a relationship instead of what you can put into it.” While I am certain that there is a percentage of people who feel this way, many people who practice pre-martital sex do so in the context of committed, long-term, loving relationship. One of the values of psychology is getting a more accurate picture of human attitudes and behavior. You may think that the majority of American society practices pre-marital sex and has no desire for a long term relationship, but if you actually did an empirical study on the topic, the results may surprise you.
In conclusion, we should avoid freely talking about “the world’s perspective” without being clear on who we are referring to. One way to rephrase the question, “What does the world teach us about this?” would be “What are some of the different views in our current society on this topic?” I feel that in this way we can better understand other people around us and where we stand in relationship to them.