Thursday, January 6, 2011


Having received more response to my blog post and email than I expected, I thought I'd write a brief follow up.

Several people have been surprised by my characterization of learning as repentance; some of these responses have been more coherent than others; I will respond to general thoughts, and let other arguments stand, or fall, as they may.

The Bible Dictionary in the LDS edition of the scriptures defines repentance as:

"Repentance. The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined. Without this there can be no progress in the things of the soul’s salvation, for all accountable persons are stained by sin, and must be cleansed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Repentance is not optional for salvation; it is a commandment of God" (

Forming a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world is exactly what learning is. As someone studies chemistry, they form a fresh view of the world; as someone does math problems, as one of my detractors used as an example, one forms a fresh view of logic, or math, which is part of the world. In other words, any real learning is a portion of repentance. LDS doctrine teaches that God is the source of all truth. Thus, learning any truth is a means of coming closer to God. Joseph Smith taught that members of the Church should accept and act on all truth, from whatever source they could find it.

I suppose that one could learn something that is not true, and thus be deceived and not come closer to God; learning falsehood is not repentance. But with the positive connotations associated with learning, I believe that I can successfully call learning "discovering truth." If learning is a positive thing, it is repentance. Every good thing comes from God, from Christ.

One of the least coherent critiques I've received is the remark made by a commenter accusing me of not thinking of this is as a religious issue. On the contrary - my point is that EVERY instant of life is a religious issue, especially learning.

An important note here - some learning is more important, and brings us closer to God more powerfully, than others. A knowledge of the reality of the Atonement of Christ is necessary for our salvation and exaltation; a knowledge of particle physics is not. Or rather, is not initially; if we are to become like our Heavenly Father, a being who knows EVERYTHING, then yes, we do "come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23) by virtue of our ignorance. This is a possible explanation for Joseph Smith's statement: "No man may be saved in ignorance." Similarly, the scripture in Ephesians 4:18: "Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart".

Fortunately, we don't have to learn everything in mortality; since we are "born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of the sin to which we are naturally inclined" (Bible Dictionary). This repentance is not optional.

In direct response to a previous commenter, yes - we all do sin, and so yes, we all do need to repent. And until we are like our Heavenly Father, we need to turn to Him - through "religious" repentance, and by "seek[ing] learning by study, and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:118). Original sin has nothing to do with it, nor do sins of omission. A failure to learn is an example of a sin of omission. We entered mortality, partly, because we didn't know everything our Heavenly Father did and we wanted to learn. The requirement to learn, and therefore, repent, does not only apply to errors we have made and want to correct. Repentance is much larger than that.

In my professor's response, he questioned whether running a mile and breaking down muscles so that they can be built up again could be classified as repentance. From either view of repentance, they can be. If one is living for God and striving to serve Him with all their might, mind, and strength, how can exercise not be part of learning to be like God? How can improving physically NOT be a part of His work? If one is exercising for selfish reasons or without an eye single to the glory of God, then yes, one is not repenting. But one also does not learn. If a person is not moving towards God, they are not discovering truth. Again, God is the source of all truth (interestingly, the devil the father of all lies or falsehoods); moving away from God is not learning.

From the perspective that any (true) learning is repentance, running also qualifies; I believe in an embodied, and perfectly embodied, God; physical learning brings my perspective closer to his in the same way that intellectual learning does - again, as long as I am uncovering truth.

Turning the heart and will to God is far more than simply saying one is sorry for every bad thing one does or has ever done. It is changing everything about ourselves to be more like our Heavenly Father. Hence, the enabling power of the Atonement: not only do we need the Christ's forgiveness and mediation, we also need His help to do anything. We need His help to improve. As Ammon stated, "Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:12).

One word in a comment stands out to me: sadistic. Someone called me sadistic for wanting to beat myself up about learning. Apart from the misuse of the word (masochistic would be more appropriate if I were beating myself up), and the misunderstanding concerning my intention (I was not beating myself up in the post at all, but objecting to institutionalized coercion), the emotional charge is clear and appropriate. I am preaching hard doctrine. Everything you do either brings you closer to God or takes you away from Him. There are decisions that we make upon which the Lord doesn't see fit to give us guidance: He doesn't direct me to buy a particular can of tuna, and most or all of the cans of tuna at store are probably acceptable choices. But I am accountable to Him even for that decision.

Nothing in life is free or unconnected to our spiritual growth. Not work, not recreation, not relaxation, not renewal, not sleep, not eating, not sex, not love. Not learning.

Luckily, just because things are connected to our relationship with God doesn't make them unpleasant. Generally speaking, quite the contrary. But that is another topic entirely.

As a side note, although I strongly disagreed with one of the responses I received, I am slightly surprised and rather pleased to find that I have a broader American audience. I knew that I had a few readers in Germany, Russia, Brussels, Israel, and other places around the world (thank you all, by the way); I didn't know the extent of the American response. It makes me glad to write - even if I disagree with someone, we can both learn ( :-) ) something from the exchange.


  1. I think I do disagree with you a little on your definition of repentance, since repentance also carries with it the connotation of turning away from sin, which, interestingly, is contained within the definition from the Bible Dictionary that you cited.

    If every bit of learning we do is repentance, it does suggest that we started out in an inherently sinful state. Assuming we start out as children and we learn something new, it makes us that much more like God, yes. But if it is also considered repentance, that means that we were sinful before we learned that piece that made us more like God.

    We have NEVER been taught that that is the case. Nor, in my experience, at least, is repentance ever taught without the specific connection to turning away from sin. Repentance is cultivating a fresh view about God, ourselves, and the world, BECAUSE we are enlightening our perspective by removing the spiritually blinding influence of sin. And yes, that IS a form of learning. Learning, by definition, does change or enhance our view of God, ourselves, and the world. But if there is no sin involved in that act of learning, than there I don't think it qualifies as repentance; it's just learning.

    Now, I agree that we do sin A LOT. And as a result, we are in need of repentance every single day (arguably every minute of every day, as well). But I don't think that learning about particle physics (to use your example) qualifies as repentance because there is no sin from which learning about particle physics is releasing us.

    I guess, in short, I'm saying that I see the connection between learning and repentance, and I agree that they are tied together, but while repentance (if it is real repentance) always constitutes learning, learning does not always imply that we are turning away from sin.

    I hope I haven't offended you. I just thought I'd share my perspective. God bless you, Brett, and I hope you have a fruitful and blessed semester.

  2. Thanks, and I wasn't offended. My point was simply that repentance is more than just turning away from sin (although that is a part of it); it is turning the heart and will to God. Thus, one can repent, even from an innocent state (or a neutral state, which is perhaps clearer). Hence, innocent children repent as they learn... even in innocence, because they turn to God.

    What I'm trying to get at, mostly, is that repentance is not pulling nails from a board, and then filling in the hole. Repentance is aiming our course towards Christ and our Heavenly Father, and moving along the path thus selected. It's the same thing, essentially, as the conversion process. Again from the Bible Dictionary: "Conversion. Denotes changing one’s views, in a conscious acceptance of the will of God."

    Again, thank you - and you as well! I'm glad that you were blessed with enthusiasm for this semester. And who knows - just because you were given one January miracle doesn't preclude others too, right?

  3. uh, okay so basically everyone is not talking about repentance as learning anymore
    which i still think is ridiculous
    i don't form a fresh view of the world every time i learn
    even big things
    my worldview has changed occasionally
    but reading books and watching documentary about a tribe in africa who's name i have forgotten
    has really not affected me in any profound way other than it was very diversionary at the time
    your logic is retarded
    so if running is repentance if you are doing it to be like god and also because you implied earlier somewhere in this blog that improving yourself physically would give you an advantage in the world to come
    so what about steven hawking?
    what about people who are strongly genetically disposed to being obese
    i think that you may find your exercise to be a spiritual experience
    but i think to suggest anything about that other than that is one way you come close to god is completely off base
    not everything is moving closer to god or away from god
    i believe strongly that there is right, wrong, and style
    learning is not repentance
    that suggests that there is something that needs to be changed
    god does know "everything"
    but i do not believe that in order to be like god you have to learn everything
    i mean, really, fourteenth century french poetry? this is essential to being like god because of some hard line requirement to know everything?
    if you like fourteenth century french poetry, that's great
    its a matter of style
    its enjoyment neither takes you closer to god nor further from him because it has nothing to do with salvation
    the only time it does is if for some reason you studied fourteenth century french poetry to the point that you neglected religion/family/etc.
    "wholesome recreation" does not mean watching jesus movies and reading the scriptures
    harry potter does not take your closer to god or further away from him
    i don't think any church authority would ever say anything one way or another about that
    i learned a lot of things from harry potter, none of which have anything to do with religion, was it repentance? was it drawing me closer to god? am i sinning because i didn't liken harry potter to jesus the whole time i was reading?
    also, the fact that god knows "everything" doesn't necessarily mean he spent a thousand years in god college
    it could simply be the effect of a mind loosed from being mortal
    and if you suggest that you need to be obsessed with learning here in order to be able to learn a "godly" amount hereafter
    yeah, that holds no water and is so ridiculous it isn't even worth discussing

  4. And yet you discuss it. I have in no way implied that wholesome recreation requires thinking about Jesus, or chanting the name of Christ... and I have no idea where your reference to French poetry came from. But your logic is internally flawed; If God knows everything, to be like God, you too must know everything.

    Joseph Smith, again, taught that if one person by their diligence gains more knowledge and intelligence than another, they are that much better off in the resurrection. So, yes- if you learned good things from Harry Potter, if it helped you become a better person, it brought you closer to God. There's more to becoming a good person than simply chanting the name of Jesus over and over.

    Hence, again, repentance is big enough to encapsulate all of learning.
    It seems you missed my previous comment: repentance is more than simply turning away from sin. It is moving towards our Heavenly Father and His mode of existence. It doesn't require error to repent. Since we're mortal, there almost always is error, so repentance usually includes turning away from sin. But it's bigger than that, and includes any positive change.

    Also: forming a fresh worldview does not mean forming a view that is so radically different from your previous one that you do not recognize it. ANY positive change in your worldview is, in this case, a new worldview. Hence, "line upon line, precept upon precept" we grow close to God.

    I enjoy writing back and forth with you, but your presentation of your ideas, zatch, has thus far not been particularly respectful; no one forces you to read my blog. Please be more respectful in the future if you wish to publish on my posts.

  5. the point of french poetry is that it is completely non sequitur
    it doesn't bring you closer to god or further from him
    reading harry potter did not make me a better or worse person
    i just enjoyed reading it
    so was that sin then?
    because it was simple physical enjoyment?
    i in no way suggest chanting jesus name makes you a better person
    what i said was
    is the only proper way to enjoy leisure, such as harry potter to find some way to make myself a better person? the example was finding christ in some way in the book
    i don't see how learning can be repentance if you you aren't consciously learning to be more like god
    not all learning is a conscious act
    most of my learning is on the level of reading harry potter
    i read the encyclopedia, the classics, watch national geographic documentaries not to improve myself, to draw closer to god, or anything, but just because i enjoy it
    does that make me better/superior to most of my room mates who could care less about learning?
    does that make academics better than normal people?
    what about people at secular universities who do not believe in god?
    is their learning repentance?
    they aren't doing it to get closer to god
    they may be doing it just to be rich and powerful
    what if someone got a medical degree to help run a dictators death camp?
    is that learning repentance?
    if any learning is repentance, conscious or not, conscious for god or not
    does that mean unconscious abandoning of sin is repentance?
    if someone is cheating on their spouse, and then decides they don't want to anymore, or the person they are cheating on goes away or something
    hence they stop, but do not tell anyone about it
    is that repentance?
    because isn't that what learning is like for my friend who got a full ride to harvard who knows just about everything so he can be plastic surgeon so he can be rich
    he knows more than i do
    he was the valedictorian, he knows more than most people i know
    but he is gay and kind of an atheist and very self centered
    i think that repentance must be a conscious decision to move towards god
    learning, in order to be repentance, must be a conscious decision to come closer to god
    learning is not repentance
    most self improvement is not repentance unless it has the explicit purpose of turning towards god
    granted, sometimes people pursue an unnamed desire which they may decide is a desire to be closer to god
    this is far from universal
    i don't think that all learning represents a new world view or "positive change"
    the logical conclusion of this would be that in order to be god you have to be a master of inane minutiae
    which to me doesn't have anything to do with being god
    like i said earlier
    i don't think god knowing everything has to do with the fact that he actually sat down and learned everything as a scholarly pursuit
    but that his mind is all powerful
    granted, any conjecture on this, the nature of god, or what, exactly, is required to be like god is purely speculative
    the only thing we know is the basics of the gospel
    i have yet to hear anything concerning exactly what the recommended amount of/attitude towards learning should be
    and while yes, general authorities past and present have said that learning is good
    they still more frequently mention the examples of humble, uneducated people who have never had much access to education and do not have much to do with real lifelong learning
    in fact, i don't ever remember hearing a positive example about an academic person
    learning is good
    but it is not repentance
    it can be
    but it is not, as a general rule

  6. I see some frustration here in the use of the word 'repentance' -- the standard use is to mean a turning from sin; Brett is expanding the definition (not without support) to mean any turning toward God. I agree that ignorance is not sin, but it is true that to be like God, one with Him, we must(eventually)know all that He does, which encompasses all knowledge. So, let's look at what is learning. Does it only mean what can be found in academia? Of course not. Yes, we frequently hear of 'humble, uneducated people' -- but that is, I believe, meant without 'book larnin' -- Joseph Smith was one of these, but he certainly was not ignorant. Lifelong learning encompasses all that we do to improve -- the uneducated farmer who has studied the weather, the seasons, the earth and the soil is not ignorant, but is more Godlike in all that he knows about farming. The student who studies 14th century French lit. is more Godlike in that area. We don't know how God attained His knowledge exactly, although it is only a (relatively) limited amount of knowledge we actually get from books and others' experiences. My guess is He probably didn't sit down in the immortal lecture halls studying for immortal exams. (Not to be flippant.) Most of what we learn, we learn through our experiences. But if we cultivate an attitude of learning -- curiosity, wonder, interest (like a child!)-- we are more Godlike in that sense than someone who does not. There are some exceptions of course (things it may be dangerous for us to know -- exploring pornography, for example is damaging to our mortal selves)but in general I don't think it is so much the topic of study as the attitude that is important. And I don't think there is a 'checklist' of things we have to know to become like God -- again, if we have that attitude of learning and growth we will be able to expand (however that happens in the eternities), whereas if we don't, we narrow in and stagnate.

  7. i think i can accept this as a happy medium
    i still don't know if i entirely agree with the whole god knowledge idea, especially considering the constraints of mortality
    but maybe i just need to think about it more
    i think i basically just have a huge problem with the idea of everything being moving towards or away from god
    it sets the stage nicely to allow hyper over achievers to place themselves in an upper class of sorts, superior to normal lazy people who don't view everything as moving closer to or away from god
    references to "hard doctrine" are a huge red flag to me

  8. Well, I'm glad you could accept something of this. The hard doctrine reference comes from Joseph Smith: "This is a hard doctrine. Who can hear it?" I made the statement because I think it's somethign most people don't want to accept or think about. incidentally, Kierkegaard made a similar point, and a similar conclusion, in the 1880s - and he wasn't even LDS. If you don't like my description, try his: "Fear and Trembling," his exposition of Abraham and Isaac, is particularly good.

    You're right in that viewing everything in moral terms doesn't justify pride; quite the opposite, in fact, but I find no scriptural justification for your idea of style. In fact, since the final judgment is how comfortable we are in the presence of God, I don't see how any argument can be made for behavior without some type of moral (i.e. - closer or farther from God) dimension, even if that means selecting one of multiple acceptable options. Judgment is based on everything we've become; and that includes everything we've done.
    Elder Christofferson talked about this in the CES fireside a few nights ago. You're entitled to your own opinion, but I think he did a good job of describing (in humble terms) what I'm talking about here.