The Shelf vs. The Garden
There is a phrase I hear repeated every now and then among members of the church. Typically when there is an issue they come across that challenges their faith, they are able to either reconcile that issue one way or another or remain undecided.
Without the necessary information to arrive at a satisfactory understanding, the person says that, for now, they will put the issue “on the shelf”.
“The shelf” is the proverbial repository for issues that you no longer want to deal with at the moment for whatever reason. You don’t have the time, resources, information or desire to pursue an answer to the question so you “shelf” it.
Here’s why I really dislike this metaphor.
When you put things on shelves all they do is
collect dust and become 100% unproductive. I don’t believe that the imagery that this metaphor conveys is helpful at all; it feels like surrender, an exasperated, reactive stance rather than a patient, proactive stance.
Importance of Metaphors
At this point, you might be asking, “Are you serious? Why make such a stink over a metaphor?” Well, metaphors, parables, allegories, symbols, etc., all help us to establish paradigms that guide our actions. I believe that they are very important, so much so that Jesus’ teachings were almost entirely based on them.
The scriptures are full of metaphorical representations of realities that exist in the spiritual world, in the heart and in the mind. When we can compare something foreign to something familiar, then we can more easily understand.
Why the Garden is Superior to the Shelf
In Alma chapter 32 we see some very rich teachings for how to obtain a perfect knowledge through a process where one takes an initial idea (the word, aka the “seed”) and “plants” it in their heart. The person then allows this seed to grow and even seeks to nourish and protect it to see if it bears any fruit and if it does, to see if that fruit is good or bad.
A discerning eye notices that this process is very similar to what we observe in the scientific method. Where a shelf is a dead-end, a garden implies continual effort and observation on our part with the possibility for growth and closure. Nothing happens to things sitting on shelves other than deterioration and the collection of dust. In the garden of the heart, ideas are cared for, nourished and allowed to grow, even if slowly or imperceptibly, but they are not left to collect dust.
In this vast garden, ideas, like plants, grow at different rates and have particular needs. Some plants bear fruit in the season that they are planted while olive trees, for example, take years to bear fruit after they are planted. Alma illustrates how knowledge comes by degrees during this process.
First, all you need is a desire to “plant the seed” to know if it is good or not. (vs.27-28)
Second, you observe how it “feels” initially, does it swell within you, does it enlarge your soul, enlighten your understanding, or is it delicious to you? Alma says that this only increases your faith at this point. The best you can do is at least know there is something good here that is worth pursuing (vs.28)
Third, this seed changes in appearance from a small, hard, brown object to a green, leafy life-form; we begin to see things differently as they develop and as our understanding expands. If it grows, we know that the seed is good, but we don’t have a “perfect knowledge” as of yet because we have not seen or tasted of the fruit. (vs.31-34)
Fourth, it is important to not give up quite yet. It is easy to get excited about new insights and a large, healthy-looking plant, but it is still possible that you hit a dead-end looking into something that is actually true. A good plant can die because of negligence. (vs.35-40) I’ve seen many people throw out truth because they found a seed of criticism that seemed to be blossoming more quickly than the seed of truth they had left unnourished. Some criticisms, like weeds, pop up in our gardens quickly and seem to flourish much easier and without the care and dedication we are giving to our other plants. Weeds would certainly be easier to garden, but they produce no nourishment. I would like to relate this to a parable from Jesus:
But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’ (Matt 13:25-30 NASB)
In the same sense, sometimes we can’t be too quick to just weed out what we perceive as a something damaging to our paradigms lest we also destroy some truth along with it. In some cases, it may be more beneficial to let everything come to fruition first so we can discern plainly between the proverbial wheat and tares in our gardens?
Finally, true and nourishing fruit comes at the end of a process that involves much faith, diligence, patience, long-suffering and waiting. Perfect knowledge obtained by sinking your teeth into the juicy fruit leaves you with no mistake about whether the seed was good or not. (vs.41-43) Note that all during this process you observe with your eyes, you feel the tender leaves, you smell the blossoms but then you taste the fruit. As the plant grows and changes, so does the sensory experience, think about how that translates on a spiritual level.
Constructing Your Garden
Instead of putting things “on the shelf”, put them “in the garden” and give them a chance to develop into knowledge. This idea is similar to the concept of a memory palace but instead of a mnemonic device for storing ideas, it is a proactive place for growing them.
Back in my teenage years, I began this process and truthfully, it was not as polished at the time as it now is. I originally started by wiping clean my slate of all paradigms and rebuilt a “garden” from the ground up. I did this by getting a simple sheet of paper and dividing it down the center. I wrote “believe” and “know” respectively at the top of each of the two columns I created.
I started with “know” and ended up with three things that I could honestly say that I knew because I had experiences where I obtained that knowledge. The “believe” side, however, ended up being everything else! It was a little uncomfortable for me to write some of the things on that side of the paper. It felt like I was losing something, but on second thought, I realized that it was something I never had in the first place.
On the “believe” side were a whole host of items that I honestly only believed were true and didn’t know if they were or not. On that side was: Jesus Christ as my savior, Joseph Smith’s role in the restoration, The Bible, The Book of Mormon, D&C, Pearl of Great Price, Temple Work, etc. So many things that a good Latter-day Saint should clearly “know”, but I had to be honest with myself, I didn’t.
Though I was a little disappointed, I wasn’t discouraged, because of the power of the three things that resided on my “know” side. I knew there was a God, I witnessed the power and authority of God that accompanied the priesthood and the last thing, which I knew more intimately than the first two, I would prefer to not talk detail here.
With that, I had reconstructed my worldview to something that was based on realities I had experienced and left open the possibility for anything. I felt very refreshed and encouraged to tackle the items on the “believe list”. I thought about where to start and figured that because of my experiences with the power and authority of God, that I should explore the faith that I already knew so well, or thought I did.
My existing beliefs were not trite, many were very important to me and reason led me hold them as beliefs or judgements on particular matters in the first place. My desire was to plant all of these beliefs in my garden.
In my mind, my garden is circular with a “storehouse” in the middle where after I have consumed the fruit that provided a perfect knowledge, I store the seeds of that fruit to then disperse as testimony. I never bear testimony of anything that is still growing in the garden, because I believe that this would be bearing a false witness. I only bear witness of things that I have actually witnessed, which makes sense right?
In the garden, I plant everything, even criticisms of other things growing in the garden and why not? Plant it all and see what grows, perhaps one subject isn’t just one seed but many. Take evolution for example, many people have a very black and white view between creation theory and evolution theory; they think it is either one way or the other. Well plant them both in the garden and you’ll notice several different plants springing up. Perhaps there is truth on both sides to be harvested; you may never know unless you plant both.
Alma’s pattern for obtaining knowledge is something I have tried and tested and have tasted the fruit and know it is good.
Sometimes the fruit we get is not what we expect, but the results are nourishing and the knowledge is welcome anyway.
In this garden there is no pressure to be “right” on anything that is still growing. If your storehouse is empty and all you have is a young garden of belief, that is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. In fact, it is quite refreshing to not have to feel compelled to just accept any wild idea that someone tries to throw at you. Why get “shaken” or disturbed by a critic or that “crazy” guy in gospel doctrine class with his theories?
In my experience, the realities of God’s dealings with man and the history of his people are extremely nuanced and not at all black and white. At first things seem simple, all we see is the seed, we can hold it in our hand. You can keep that seed in your pocket and always have something simple to hold on to, or you can grow it and feast on the fruit. But don’t be surprised or overwhelmed when that tiny seed becomes a large tree with tens of thousands of branches and leaves to explore.
I personally don’t recognize anything thrust upon me that doesn’t come through faith, diligence, patience, long-suffering and waiting; why fly to pieces when a fast-growing weed springs up?
Take a deep breath, apply the principles, then see what develops. There’s no rush to meet any deadlines, what matters is your desire and sincerity in the process. Nobody has all the answers to everything, so don’t get frustrated when you don’t either. Nobody can give you their fruit, they can only give seeds and only you can plant those seeds and obtain the fruit for yourself. Whether the seed-giver is an apostle, prophet, teacher, critic or wolf in sheep’s clothing, there is a divinely-established way of receiving truth and knowledge and you can know independent of anybody else.
Think of how powerful that idea is.
If you find that your storehouse is empty and you are starting from scratch, much like the humble Zoramites of the past who asked, “how they should plant the seed, or the word of which he had spoken, which he said must be planted in their hearts; or in what manner they should begin to exercise their faith.” (Alma 33:1) Alma teaches very clearly where you should begin. I would suggest reading all of Alma 33 (as well as 32) but here is the most important part that I have updated for the modern reader:
“…begin to believe in the Son of God, that he [has] come to redeem his people, and that he [has suffered] and [died] to atone for their sins; and that he [rose] from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.
And now, my brethren, I desire that ye shall plant this word in your hearts, and as it beginneth to swell even so nourish it by your faith. And behold, it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life. And then may God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will. Amen.” (Alma 33:22-23)
My storehouse has grown much since the beginning, and the seed that I would most like to share with you is that the pure love of Jesus Christ is the most desirable of all things I have yet experienced in this life. He is my personal Savior and his love is the same for all mankind, especially outstretched toward the vilest of sinners.
Words are insufficient to describe taste, and impossible to describe the things of God. I encourage you to plant your garden, and obtain the fruit for yourself.