I recently got an e-mail from one of the forum members about a problem we’ve all observed.  Here is an extract from it:

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Here’s an observation of what I believe is an endemic syndrome in the organization. It is not limited by any means just to us, but I do think we foster this thinking.

In the oral review last night there was the question about Egypt’s 40 years of desolation. It’s obviously a head-scratcher because that is a major event over a long period to go unrecorded in history. It is understandable that the Egyptians may not have recorded it, but there are plenty of Babylonian records from the time, and you’d think they would be shouting it from the roof-tops.

Anyway that is not my point here. For now I’ll accept that there is a reasonable explanation that is not at odds with the inspired Word.

My point is that it was one of those questions that had an uncertain answer. The official answer acknowledges that uncertainty. Such a desolation might have occurred shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem, but this is a pure guess. Now what I notice is that when we have questions like this in any Q&A parts it is extraordinary how often the first comment turns the stated speculation (and in these cases it is stated) into fact. In the case of the answer last night it was delivery by a sister as “This occurred shortly after the …”

Now since I was conducting the review I felt duty bound to clarify the answer at the end. The important point was that we trust God’s Word even in the absence of historical corroboration.

But it made me think about how we foster this kind of thought process. Congregation members have been trained to find their comfort zone in stated facts, not in uncertainty. There is no penalty for publicly stating as fact something which the F&DS has offered a possible explanation/interpretation, but the reverse will get you in a whole heap of trouble i.e. suggesting there is room for further consideration of an interpretation that the slave has stated as fact. It acts as a kind of one-way valve for turning speculation into fact, but the reverse becomes more difficult.

It is something of the same mindset when it comes to our illustrations as we have previously discussed. State what you see in picture as fact and you are on safe ground. Dissent on the grounds that it differs from God’s Word and … well you have experienced being on the wrong end of that.

Where does this lack of clear thinking stem from? If this happens at an individual level within the local congregations, I suggest that the same may be happening higher up the ranks. Again your experience at the school shows that it is not limited to the lowest levels. Therefore the question becomes – where does such thinking stop? Or does it? Let’s take a controversial matter like “the generation” interpretation. If one influential person (likely within the GB but not necessarily) presents some speculation on the matter, at what point does it become fact? Somewhere in the process it moves from being merely possible to indisputable. I venture that what is going on in terms of thought process may not be a world apart from our dear sister’s at the meeting last night. One person crosses that threshold and others who do not have the inclination to analyze what is being said find it easier to settle into their comfort zone of fact rather than uncertainty.
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I’m sure you have seen this type of thing in your congregation. I know I have. We do not seem comfortable with doctrinal uncertainty; and while we disdain speculation officially, we engage in it regularly seemingly without being aware we are even doing so. The question of how far such thinking goes up the ladder was answered with just a little research. Take as but one example of this the following excerpt from the Watchtower of November 1, 1989, p. 27, par. 17:

“The ten camels may be compared to the complete and perfect Word of God, by means of which the bride class receives spiritual sustenance and spiritual gifts.”

 Now here’s the question for that paragraph:

 “(a) What do the ten camels picture?”

Notice that the conditional “may” from the paragraph has been removed from the question. Of course, the answers would reflect that lack of conditionality, and suddenly the 10 camels are a prophetic picture of God’s word; signed, sealed, and delivered.

This is not an isolated case, just the first one that sprang to mind.  I’ve seen this also take place between an article which was clearly conditional in its presentation of some new point, and the “Do You Remember” review section in a Watchtower several issues later.  All conditionality had been removed and the question was phrased such that the point was now fact.

The e-mail refers to the role illustrations have now taken on in our publications.  They have become an integral part of our teaching.  I have no problem with that as long as we remember that an illustration, whether verbal or drawn, doesn’t prove a truth.  An illustration merely serves to help explain or illustrate a truth once it has been established.  However, recently I’ve noticed how illustrations are taking  on a life of their own.  A real-life example of this happened to a brother I know.  One of the instructors at the elders school was making the point about the benefits of simplifying our lives and used the example of Abraham from a recent Watchtower.  At the break, this brother approached the instructor to explain that while he agreed with the benefits of simplification, Abraham wasn’t a good example of this, because the Bible clearly states that he and Lot took everything they owned when they left.

(Genesis 12:5) “So Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot the son of his brother and all the goods that they had accumulated and the souls whom they had acquired in Haran, and they got on their way out to go to the land of Canaan.”

Without missing a beat, the instructor explained that that scripture didn’t mean they literally took everything.  Then went on to remind the brother of the illustration in the Watchtower showing Sarah deciding what to bring and what to leave behind.  He was absolutely serious in his conviction that this proved the matter.  Not only had the illustration become proof, but proof that supersedes what is plainly stated in God’s written word.

It’s like we’re all walking around with blinders on. And if somebody has the presence of mind to remove their blinders, the rest will start to pound on him. It’s like that fable of the small kingdom where everybody drank from the same well. One day the well was poisoned and everyone who drank from it went mad. Pretty soon the only one left with his sanity was the king himself. Feeling alone and abandoned, he finally succumbed to despair at not being able to help his subjects regain their sanity and also drank from the poisoned well.  When he began to act like a madman, all the townsfolk rejoiced, crying out, “Look!  At last the King has regained his reason.”

Perhaps this situation will only be put right in the future, in God’s New World.  For now, we must be “cautious as serpents, but innocent as doves.”