Knowledge or Faith?

Last month, Jacob over at BCC started an interesting series on the philosophy of religion, which I hope he continues at some point. Not being quite ready to spring $120 for a copy of the recommended book, I tracked down a library copy of a shorter and very readable introductory text, William L. Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction (Wadsworth, 2001, 3rd ed.). What I found most interesting in the book was the contrast between knowledge and faith. The discussion seems particularly relevant given how frequently the distinction between knowledge and faith is muddled or simply ignored in LDS discourse.

Knowledge and Reason

Like every similar book, this one devotes several early chapters to the three proofs or arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, and the teleological or design argument. It is possible that a person could find one of these arguments compelling and thus arrive at a belief in God on rational grounds alone. I suspect this happens rather infrequently, as none of the three seems to carry that degree of persuasiveness, at least modernly. While perhaps not compelling or even persuasive, the three arguments still merit study as a way to help a person clarify the basis for his or her own belief or disbelief.

A second avenue for arriving at rational belief is religious or mystical experience. Here’s how the author introduces this topic. I like the image of God leaving traces in the world.

Before Robinson Crusoe actually saw the man Friday, his justification for believing that some person other than himself existed on the island consisted in traces left by Friday, such as footprints. The believer who bases a belief in God solely on arguments for God’s existence, like the Cosmological and Design arguments, is in a position something like Crusoe’s before actually seeing Friday. Belief in God rests on a conviction that the world and the way things are interrelated in the world are traces of God’s activity, testifying to the existence of some sort of supreme being. Once Crusoe actually saw Friday, however, his grounds for believing that he was not alone on the island were not limited to traces left by Friday, they included a direct personal awareness of Friday himself. Analogously, religious and mystical experience is often viewed by those who undergo such experience as a direct, personal awareness of God himself, and, consequently, as exceptionally strong justification for the belief in God. (p. 55)

Rowe discusses Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus as an example of a nonmystical religous experience. Mormons likely think of Joseph’s First Vision. Mystical experiences are discussed as extrovertive (where ordinary objects in the world are transfigured or transformed to reveal a deeper or divine essence) or introvertive (where the mystic burrows down to the deepest corner of the self and finds something divine). We must distinguish, of course, between a personal experience as subjectively experienced and simply hearing or reading an account of someone else’s religious experience. Those are two separate cases. The first presents the basis for a justifiable claim to knowledge, whereas the second is better discussed as a basis for faith.

Rowe highlights two assumptions that shape the discussion about establishing rational belief by argument or by personal religious experience.

First, we have assumed that religious beliefs, like scientific and historical beliefs, should be judged in the court of reason; second, we have assumed that religious beliefs will find favor in the court of reason only if they are adequately supported by evidence in their favor. (p. 74)

There are grounds to reject these assumptions, in particular the idea that faith is and must be freely given assent rather than compelled assent. “[T]he very nature of religion requires that its beliefs rest on faith, not reason” (p. 75).

Faith and Belief

So if faith isn’t a compelling or persuasive argument based on reason and evidence or experience, what is it? Rowe offers two answers. One is from Thomas Aquinas, who saw faith falling somewhere between knowledge and opinion. Faith must, like knowledge but unlike mere opinion, carry a degree of certainty regarding its object. “But in order that the act of faith be a free act, it is necessary that the intellect not be compelled by conclusive evidence that yields knowledge” (p. 75). Aquinas held that some religious claims could be established by reason (God exists; God is good) but that many others could not and must be believed on faith, although reason could nevertheless offer probable rather than conclusive arguments to support those other beliefs.

Rowe discusses a second approach to faith, that of William James, at some length. Critics argued that religious belief is not justified unless there is reliable sufficient evidence for the claim or belief. James responded by arguing that when an issue is “intellectually undecidable” (no compelling argument either way) and presents “live options” (a pressing and nontrivial choice between two or more subjectively plausible options) people were justified in freely choosing their beliefs. Some people do not regard religious questions as intellectually undecidable. Those who do are essentially holding that the question of truth versus falsity is not a sufficient basis for choosing or holding religious beliefs. James offers additional pragmatic reasons for choosing belief, while at the same time regarding atheism and agnosticism as live options for those so inclined.

Mormon Faith

If religious knowledge and religious faith are two contrasting concepts, where does Mormonism’s view of faith fall? I think Mormon discourse tends to express faith but does so using a vocabulary of knowledge. Maybe this is characteristic of all Christian denominations. In any case, it seems to create some tension for Mormons who are particularly sensitive and who place themselves on the faith side of a faith-knowledge distinction. The problem is that some Mormons and even some leaders seem to regard expressions of faith (as opposed to knowledge; mere faith) as actually constituting expressions of doubt, and who even go on to regard an expressions of doubt as something of a sin.

I think this is more of a cultural problem than a doctrinal one, a problem of how we speak rather than of what we believe or what the doctrine is. Here are a few discussions of faith pulled from LDS sources that show both views. Some quotations clearly put LDS faith on the faith side of a faith/knowledge distinction, while others see faith and knowledge on the same continuum or speak of testimony in terms of knowledge rather than faith.

From True to the Faith:

The Apostle Paul taught that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Alma made a similar statement: “If ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21).

Also from True to the Faith:

You can nurture the gift of faith by praying to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ. … You can strengthen your faith by keeping the commandments. … You can also develop your faith by studying the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets.

From LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, article “Faith,” by Robert L. Millet:

[F]aith is intimately connected with hope: to have true faith in Jesus Christ is to have hope in Christ. … No one can attain unto faith without also having hope. We need not speak of faith as something one either has in its fulness or does not have. Gaining faith is a process.

Also from LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, article “Faith”:

Some have supposed that faith and knowledge are on opposite ends of a continuum — that once they have knowledge, they no longer need faith. Actually, faith and knowledge build upon one another. A certain degree of knowledge is necessary in order to exercise faith, even “a particle of faith” (Alma 32:27). Then, after one has begun to develop faith, new and added knowledge comes — new insights, new perspectives, new feelings, new desires. There is a sense in which one might speak, as Alma did to the Zoramites, of one’s faith being replaced by knowledge whenever a testimony of a particular principle has been obtained (Alma 32:34; Ether 3:19). In reality, however, faith has not disappeared but instead has been added upon.

From Elder Bednar’s most recent General Conference talk:

As is evidenced in Peter’s reply and the Savior’s instruction, a testimony is personal knowledge of spiritual truth obtained by revelation. A testimony is a gift from God and is available to all of His children. Any honest seeker of truth can obtain a testimony by exercising the necessary “particle of faith” in Jesus Christ to “experiment upon” (Alma 32:27) and “try the virtue of the word” (Alma 31:5), to yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), and to awaken unto God (see Alma 5:7).

6 comments for “Knowledge or Faith?

  1. Thanks for the post, Dave. Isn’t all religion essentially based on some concept of an unseen deity and the hope that the lifestyles and beliefs of a given community or given individual revered by the said community are more in line with the will of a particular deity or set of cosmological forces than the lifestyles and beliefs of other communities? If so, wouldn’t that make the concept of “religious knowledge” an oxymoron? Wouldn’t it be more correct to just say “religious belief” instead? Because at some point in virtually all religions, one has to make leap of faith in explaining one’s beliefs; in other words, make statements about what they see things things the way they do without being able to provide strong evidence. In essence the religious believer is much like Crusoe before seeing Friday. Traces may lead the believer to believe, but they can’t really know until they see Friday.

    I certainly believe many things without being able to fully explain them. I believe them because I can loosely assemble some evidence to support the claim, because of intuition, or because someone authoritative believes it. But I wouldn’t ever claim to know something unless I had unassailable evidence or a personal witness. But then that begs the question, can you really know something from a mere sensation or feeling? Elder Bednar claims that revelation can serve as a source of knowing. But what exactly is revelation and how is it different from intuition or personal inspiration that someone generates from within?

  2. Great subject. A few thoughts to add from the scriptures:

    Paul on Faith as ‘Knowing in Part’ – I LOVE this definition of faith! It is not just belief, but it is not pure knowledge. It is partial knowledge awaiting the perfect day. 1 Corinthians 13:12 – “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

    The Brother of Jared’s faith turns to perfect, complete knowledge:

    6 And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear.

    7 And the Lord saw that the brother of Jared had fallen to the earth; and the Lord said unto him: Arise, why hast thou fallen?

    8 And he saith unto the Lord: I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.

    9 And the Lord said unto him: Because of thy faith thou hast seen that I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger. Sawest thou more than this?

    10 And he answered: Nay; Lord, show thyself unto me.

    11 And the Lord said unto him: Believest thou the words which I shall speak?

    12 And he answered: Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie.

    13 And when he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.

    14 Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.

    15 And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.

    16 Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh.

    19 And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting.

    20 Wherefore, having this perfect knowledge of God, he could not be kept from within the veil; therefore he saw Jesus; and he did minister unto him.

  3. On a related post (, I posted this excerpt on the evolution of the terms “faith” and “belief” from Karen Armstrong’s “The Case for God”:


    Yet did not Jesus constantly insist that his followers acknowledge his divine status-almost as a condition of discipleship? In the gospels we continually hear him berating his disciples for their lack of “faith” and praising the “faith” of gentiles, who seem to understand him better than his fellow Jews. Those who beg him for healing are required to have “faith” before he can work a miracle, and some pray: “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” We do not find this preoccupation with “belief” in the other major traditions. Why did Jesus set such store by it? The simple answer is that he did not. The word translated as “faith” in the New Testament is the Greek pistis (verbal form: pisteuo), which means “trust; loyalty; engagement; commitment.” Jesus was not asking people to “believe” in his divinity, because he was making no such claim. He was asking for commitment. He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement, live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and trust in the God who was their father. They must spread the good news of the Kingdom to everyone in Israel-even the prostitutes and tax collectors-and live compassionate lives, not confining their benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous. Such pistis could move mountains and unleash unsuspected human potential.

    When the New Testament was translated from Greek into Latin by Saint Jerome (c. 342-420), pistis became fides (“loyalty”). Fides had no verbal form, so for pisteuo Jerome used the Latin verb credo, a word that derived from cor do, “I give my heart.” He did not think of using opinor (“I hold an opinion”). When the Bible was translated into English, credo and pisteuo became “I believe” in the King James version (1611). But the word “belief” has since changed its meaning. In Middle English, bileven meant “to prize; to value; to hold dear.” It was related to the German belieben (“to love”), liebe (“beloved”), and the Latin libido. So “belief” originally meant “loyalty to a person to whom one is bound in promise or duty.” When Chaucer’s knight begged his patron to “accepte my bileve,” he meant “accept my fealty, my loyalty.” In Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which was probably written around 1603, shortly before the publication of the King James Bible, the young nobleman Bertram is urged to “believe not thy disdain”: he must not entertain his contempt for lowborn Helena and allow it to take deep root in his heart. During the late seventeenth century, however, as our concept of knowledge became more theoretical, the word “belief” started to be used to describe an intellectual assent to a hypothetical-and often dubious- proposition. Scientists and philosophers were the first to use it in this sense, but in religious contexts the Latin credere and the English “belief” both retained their original connotations well into the nineteenth century.

  4. Alma 32:34 probably really challenges most LDS members understanding of what faith is. It talks about how if you have had faith in something long enough, and have had enough experiences which reinforce that faith, knowledge ends up replacing the faith as the faith becomes dormant.
    So by that reasoning the president of the church shouldn’t have much faith, because surely he has a lot of experience with and knowledge about the gospel. But that idea’s absurd. Or perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps the president has great amounts of faith over all, but in some aspects of his-self the knowledge has replaced the faith.

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