May 26, 2008

"I know the Church is true, I love my mom and dad," And Other Absolute Truths

Ever since I was a child, I remember sitting in fast and testimony meeting and wondering why all the kids in primary all said virtually the same testimony: "I know the Church is true, I love my mom and dad, I know so-and-so is a true prophet, etc." "Why can't someone just say something different?" I would think to myself. I must admit that I fell into the same trap myself, but I do recall adding to my testimony the fact that I loved my cat, the young and budding dissident that I was. I guess I felt that would be enough to not be guilty of plagiarism like all the others. Now that I've gotten older, I've come to understand that one's testimony is a personal thing and everyone has had their own personal experiences. So I try to be less critical, since I'm not exactly able to get up every month and say something profound.

Being married to a non-member, as I am, has its challenges but it can also be an excellent opportunity to re-examine one's faith and to challenge it. Only then do I know how strong (or weak) my faith really is. I remember my husband commenting after a fast and testimony meeting that he wondered how everyone could get up there and say things like "I KNOW the Church is true, beyond a shadow of a doubt, etc." This got me thinking and I started to re-examine my faith and questioning what I knew vs. what I believed. I came to the conclusion that a more honest testimony, at least for myself, is that "I BELIEVE the Church is true, I HOPE that it is, if I had to bet my life or money on it, I would bet that it is true and there is a lot of good in the Church. However, there are a lot of troubling things in the Church's past and present, so I am open to the possibility that it's all a fraud. I BELIEVE in a lot, but I KNOW very little."

We are a church of absolute truths. Not only do we have the absolute truth, we have a monopoly on absolute truth. We are GOD's Church upon the earth, the ONLY true Church, with the ONLY true prophet, the ONLY one with legitimate priesthood authority from GOD, and in order to be saved, you have to go through us, whether in this life or the next. Should be reassuring, right? Personally, I shy away from absolute truths. I may believe all of the above, but I have a hard time proclaiming it all to be "the absolute truth" that everyone should feel obligated to accept. Maybe it's just my way of wimping out. After all, knowing the absolute truth is a scary thought. For starters, what kind of horrendous trial would it take for me to KNOW? I think I'd rather go througout life with uncertainty than being struck down by an angel. That level of certainty carries a lot of obligation with it. What if polygamy was reinstated a few years down the road? Have you ever thought about what you'd do? I think you can see my fear of commitment shining through. It's a miracle I ever got married.

Despite the fact that many look at Mormons as being arrogant for saying they so, I don't like to bash all the Mormons who say that they KNOW. Who am I to say that they don't know? I don't know. I have admiration for the commitment of anyone who can say they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's all true and therefore if polygamy was reinstated tomorrow or President Monson said that chocolate was now banned, they would follow through.

I've found great comfort in "Pascal's Wager," from French philosopher Blaise Pascal (see image), which basically says that even though God's existence can't be proven by reason, people should "wager" that God does exist and live their lives accordingly because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I think there's a lot of truth to it, despite the fact that I know an atheist would say that I'm losing the only life I have by wasting my time on living a religion for a God that doesn't exist. (You can read more about Pascal here:

On the other hand, I think that most Mormons would find Pascal's Wager to be insufficient. Because we CAN KNOW, why settle for just wagering on it? One of life's greatest mysteries to me is why some people seem to know and accept the truth so easily, while others can struggle their entire lives searching, yearning, longing to know the truth only to find it to be elusive. I've seen many good people: caring, compassionate, and humble who have such a strong desire to know God and to feel His Peace. Some find it, but others don't and it's easy to ask what they did wrong. In some cases I can't find any flaw in their approach. I read an article not too long ago, I think it was in the Ensign but I can't remember which issue or which GA was telling the story about one of the prophets. When he was called to be a stake president, he expressed his feelings that he didn't felt he KNEW with absolutely certainty that the Gospel was true. Some of the brethren felt this was enough to remove him from office because he SHOULD KNOW, but the superior at the time felt that that would be a little hasty. To make a short story short, his superior told him that he could know for a surety and so he prayed earnestly about it, got the witness he was in need of, and later went on to become a prophet.

We learn in the scriptures that each member of the Church is entitled to a spiritual gift. In D&C 46 it reads:

11 For all have not every a gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.

15 And again, to some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know the differences of administration, as it will be pleasing unto the same Lord, according as the Lord will, suiting his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men.

16 And again, it is given by the Holy Ghost to some to know the diversities of operations, whether they be of God, that the manifestations of the Spirit may be given to every man to profit withal.

17 And again, verily I say unto you, to some is given, by the Spirit of God, the word of wisdom.

18 To another is given the word of knowledge, that all may be taught to be wise and to have knowledge.

19 And again, to some it is given to have faith to be healed;

20 And to others it is given to have faith to heal.

21 And again, to some is given the working of miracles;

22 And to others it is given to prophesy;

23 And to others the discerning of spirits.

24 And again, it is given to some to speak with tongues;

25 And to another is given the interpretation of tongues.

26 And all these gifts come from God, for the benefit of the children of God.

While I don't think I've been given verse #13, I think that perhaps I do have #14. Does this mean that I can be quite content to sit back and say "Yes, I believe and therefore I will be faithful" or do I need to constantly be reaching for the sure knowledge of verse #13? If I interpret these verses correctly, then it seems to me that those who think that everyone can know just like they do, is perhaps wrong. (Incidentally, it's amazing how many people in the Church seem to have been given #13. Think about that next fast and testimony meeting. :)

Those are my thoughts for the day. Oh, and just for the record, I do love my mom and dad and my cat(s) and that's the absolute truth!


Zelph said...

Growing up a member of the church, I never really thought about it or gave it much thought. Is it really 100% honest to get up and publicly announce that you 'know' something to be true?

I know the Earth revolves around the sun. How do I know this? Because all the observable evidence points to it, not because of a feeling within my heart.

Someone that is not familiar with the church that comes in on a testimony meeting might get the wrong impression. This is from a different website:

"WHY do Mormons say I KNOW so much?...At first I found it intriguing. I too wanted to KNOW answers. I thought they really did KNOW. Until I heard a few too many say "fake it til you make it" about testimonies. HOW could you stand up there and say I know when you only hope or believe or even completely disbelieve?"

I think this draws an excellent question if it is just psychological games that people are playing with themselves. If I said "I know that goblins live underground" enough times, I think that I would eventually start to believe it, especially if I surrounded myself principally with people that believed in ground-dwelling goblins. It is amazing how the human mind works and if you hear something enough times, and say it enough times, it doesn't matter what it is, you will start to believe it.

I think that bearing a testimony and saying "I know" isn't the best way to obtain knowledge, but it is certainly the best way to hypnotize yourself.

I think the best way to obtain knowledge is to study all the available information. This includes the criticisms. Listen to both sides and then you can base your belief on all the information, not just one side of the story.

To just say "I know" when you really don't know is just hope. However, no matter how much you want to believe in something, it doesn't necessarily make it true. That is why if someone REALLY wants to 'know' if something is true, it is best to study as much about the subject as possible, because even if they don't like the answer, if they want to know 'the truth', I believe it is the best approach.

Zelph said...

One more comment, I always found Pascal's wager problematic and even paradoxical.

We are to "wager" that there is a God because the possible reward outweighs the possibility of the punishment. However, the problem is which God and which religion? The problem and the paradox is you could apply Pascal's wager to the LDS church, but also to the Catholic church, to Islam, to Christian Fundamentalism. You could even apply Pascal's wager to the FLDS. You can't believe in all religions either, because according to each one, you have to denounce all other churches.

So it is very problematic and I think you touched on the idea that it isn't really exercising a belief in God anyways, just placing a bet, which if I were God I would find insufficient.

angryyoungwoman said...

I remember when I was a kid I wrote my testimony in my journal. Later, because I wanted to be honest, I went back and crossed out all the "I know"s and replaced them with "I believe"s. My mom was none to happy with me. I always have wondered, though, how people know. I could only ever believe.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Zelph, I see what you're saying about God finding a wager to be insufficient, but I disagree. Besides people who have seen and communicated with God personally (let's assume that they have) such as Moses or Joseph Smith, I think that the rest of us are actually just wagering. I think that, at least for myself, wagering = believing because if I'm going to wager on something, involving money or in this case my soul, I have to believe that there's at least a good chance that it's going to turn out the way I hope. I'm not going to bet on something that I don't think has a chance. And when someone like me, who has lots of doubts, chooses to live the Gospel then it is like gambling. I'm not as confident as others of a "sure win," but I am willing to put my chips in that the Church is true. It's a gamble that I'm actually willing to take and I hope and believe that that would be sufficient in the eyes of God, according to my personal effort combined with whatever knowledge He's seen fit to give me.

As far as knowledge and KNOWING, I get what you're saying because I'm a very logical person and I like to know with my head whether something is true or not. However, I don't think that spiritual matters can be understood by the head alone. Yes, I know that some of the Mormon critics have a very good case and a person with my mindset has every reason to leave the Church. The Church may not be everything it claims to be. But maybe it is. I am open to the possibility that it IS possible to KNOW, fully realizing that I may never be one of those people and that's OK with me. If you haven't experienced something yourself, it's hard to be convinced by someone else's personal truth. People are always skeptical of those who have have been declared dead, only to come back and tell of "seeing the light," until they've experienced it themselves. Yes, I'm skeptical of all those who KNOW it's true, but because they've maybe had the truth revealed to them they can look at me with the same sort of skepticism, like "how can she NOT know it's true?" Everyone's personal life experience is as unique as their DNA. To me, knowing the mysteries of God is not the same as knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun. People, myself included, like to apply earthly laws of knowledge to spiritual matters, but I just don't believe that it's always possible, no matter how much you study.

Angryyoungwoman, it's too bad that your mom got angry for your being honest. Let that be a lesson to all of us, if we have children or someday will, that we should encourage them to seek knowledge for themselves instead of telling them that they already "know" something. Probably the only thing my parents could honestly tell me that I knew for sure as a kid was that it was my turn for the dishes.

Zelph said...

If I end up leaving the church, I figure that I could still play Pascal's wager by simply living the golden rule. If we are to believe that God is a just God, I do not understand why God would favor someone that is a member of his church over someone else that is not a member of his church if they are both productive members of society and treat God's children fairly and with dignity and respect.

One might say that God wants us to worship him and religion provides a means for us to do so, but I say that the best way to worship God is to follow the golden rule throughout your whole life. I have become very skeptical of all religions and even question Jesus or even if there is a God.

However, I can "hedge" this bet by simply treating others the way I would want to be treated. I do not believe that God would punish me for this.

Anonymous said...

It's always seemed interesting to me that (barring a whole lot of brainwashing) sincere seekers in various parts of the country or the world "know" that the Baptist faith or Evangelicalism or the LDS or Islam or the Hindu faith or the Jewish faith or...well, you get my point. But why is it that "knowing" is a function of who is around you?

And how about those who are converted who pray on the BoM and feel the Holy Spirit but then return to their original beliefs in huge percentages? Even after you've had the truth, does it still require the affirmation of those around you to "remain" true?

anonymous alice

Kelli W. said...

I love this post. I don't remember how I even came upon your blog, but I'm enjoying your thoughts and your honesty. I feel I have so many great thoughts to share, but lack the talent of communicating them well in writing. You have this talent that I want! Maybe this is another fruit of the spirit you posess. Also, I have young children and my time on the computer is very limited, so I never have time to focus on my deep personal thoughts to write about them. I'll just enjoy your's for now! But I will add that I love the Gospel of Jesus Christ and am grateful for the comfort and peace it brings me living in this difficult world. I can't express in words my feelings of love and gratitude for my Savior Jesus Christ. I was born into this Church with a wonderful active family and extended family, yet have learned on my own why the Restorded Gospel is so important to me personally. I am still continually learning what the Atonement means to me and how to apply His great sacrifice to my life. That, I suppose has always been my main focus and where my testimony is strong. All the other stuff is small in comparison. I still love to learn and ponder and pray and I figure most of the things I wonder about and can't understand will work themselves out in the wash so to speak. I choose not to say "I know" because It doesn't feel right to me personally. But to express my feelings of love and gratitude come very naturally. In my heart I really think I know certain things are absolute truth when the Spirit touches me, but how spiritualy in tune I am waxes and wanes. I wish I were more constant.

Sanford said...

I have struggled with this issue for a longtime. I am not prepared to tell any testimony bearing that they don't know what they say they do. In fact, I don't doubt that they know it. But like, Zelph, I think that the use of "I know" can be confusing to non-Mormons and many Mormons for that matter. In People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture, Terryl Givens does a remarkable job of explaining why Mormons use I know rather than I believe. It started with Joseph Smith. For him, it wasn't about believing, it was about knowing. He saw God the Father and his son. He hefted the golden plates. Now you can doubt him, but his rhetoric of knowing accords with his experience. As for me, I don't know, but I try to believe in my own strange way. So faith is good enough for me -- I don't require knowledge at this point in my Mormon experience.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Kelli, despite the fact that you think you lack the talent to communicate in writing, I think you did a wonderful job of summing up your honest thoughts and feelings regarding your faith in the Gospel. In fact, you've done it much better than I have been able to so far. I have a hard time sticking to the simplicity that's at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus because I get so distracted, sidetracked and frustrated by all the "stuff" that comes along with being a member of the Church. But I think I know what you're saying and feeling because that's my reason for staying in the Church. Despite the constant challenge of trying to bridge and reconcile all the difficult "stuff," like history, doctrine and policies, with the pure Gospel of Christ, there's obviously something that makes me want to stick around and I think you hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

Good post!

One time, I heard someone share a testimony that struck me as unique. He started with the generic words "I know that the church is true..." but didn't stop there. He finished what I realized was an incomplete sentence. He continued: "I know that the Church is true to the teachings of the Savior Jesus Christ, as I understand them from the scriptures."

I am one who feels that the Holy Ghost give transmit a knowledge that is more sure and lasting than any sensory experience.. however, I was impressed with this person's wording. What he said, regardless of whether he's felt a spiritual witness, is something he can know from personal investigation.

Just a thought.

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