How Do You Know?

When we were younger, we threw the word “know” around a lot. We said we knew “with every fiber of our being” that X, Y, and Z were true. And we knew not because of reason or “evidence” but because of the witness of the spirit. This kind of knowledge is the foundation of a Mormon life. Here’s Richard G. Scott’s take on it: “A strong testimony is the unshakable foundation of a secure, meaningful life where peace, confidence, happiness, and love can flourish. It is anchored in a conviction that an all-knowing God is in command of His work (“The Power of a Strong Testimony,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, p. 87).

And I had this knowledge. I was firm in the faith and unshakable. Here’s something I wrote about this kind of knowledge way back in 1998:

“When the Spirit speaks to you, you know it. Although others may dismiss
the Spirit as “feelings,” those who have received a witness of the truth
know the difference. I don’t share why I know (and yes, I do know) the
gospel is true because I can’t find words adequate to define or describe
why I know, and to do so would cheapen the witness. And besides, there
are plenty of critics who would mock and denigrate a sacred experience
(you know, casting pearls before swine).

“So, yes, I will be “evasive” about this because I cannot really explain
how the Spirit and revelation work in my life. I don’t begrudge people’s
saying they know, because I know.”

It sounds hopelessly naive to me now, but I was sure I knew. I had a knowledge that surpassed any earthly understanding. But I’ve been thinking today about a nagging contradiction in our earlier use of “knowledge.” We were warned continually that we had to constantly nurture our testimonies, or we would lose them. Again, here’s Elder Scott: “Your testimony will be fortified as you exercise faith in Jesus Christ, in His teachings, and in His limitless power to accomplish what He has promised.” Conversely, he says, “Yes, these things can be lost by succumbing to [Satan’s] temptations. But he has no power in and of himself to destroy them.”

What always struck me was that there was something different about this kind of “knowledge.” If, for example, I learn that gravity is a true principle, there’s not much I can do to have a stronger knowledge of gravity, except perhaps to understand the physics behind it. And I will not likely forget that gravity is true. So, what is it about a knowledge that the church is true that can be increased or decreased or even lost?

I knew back in 1998. Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like had other facts not superseded the knowledge I had. What do you do, for example, when facts collide? How do you determine what is true? I suspect that the answer to those questions determines where we stand in relation to the “weightier matters” of religion and belief and science.

For me, it’s enough to admit that I don’t know as much as I think I know. I like it better that way.

7 thoughts on “How Do You Know?

  1. I like it better that way, too.

    One cannot be more humble than to subject one’s opinions to logic and evidence. For logic and evidence are independent of us as individuals.

    Feelings, on the other hand, are a product of our bodies. Privileging the reactions of our bodies over logic and evidence is arrogant.

    Of course, that’s not how we experienced testimonies because they motivated our submission to LDS leaders. Submission to someone else’s agenda explains why it is so easy to con Mormons.

    It also explains why people who consider themselves servants of Jesus would punish their own flesh and blood over religious disagreements, boycott the businesses of religious outsiders, and even participate in mass murder.

    If you have to justify your actions in terms of logic and evidence, on the other hand, then people will have a much harder time suckering you and we will be less likely to participate in coercion.

  2. Part of the problem is we were raised to equate “belief” with “knowledge.” It’s like that old Steve Martin bit where he said he wanted to raise his kids by teaching him the wrong words. So they would go to school and say “May I mu-mu dogface in the banana patch?”

    Those feelings of faith and belief are very powerful, but if you are taught that those feelings are the same as knowledge it skews your entire perspective.

  3. “All knowledge begins in ignorance”. The Church and it’s testimony-espousing members are the only group that do the above backwards.

    When I “know” something, it becomes immutable (in theory). To say “I believe the Church is true” allows wiggle room for doubt. Doubt leads to what? QUESTIONS. And that’s the one thing Church leaders don’t want any of us to have.

    Great post

  4. Most LDS mean “believe without doubt” when they say “know”. Underlying this terminology is the assumption that they have inerrant knowledge (i.e. epistemic certitude) when they believe something without doubt which is – as JulieAnn pointed out – really a very arrogant belief. It assumes that the believer is inerrant.

    To lack doubt is not the same as being right.

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