The Assurance of Love

776 - Hendrick ter Brugghen - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Hendrick ter Brugghen (WIkimedia Commons)

About a week ago, I came across an interesting quote from a talk President Hinckley gave during the October 1981 General Conference (Faith: The Essence of True Religion). He quoted a journalist who had recently given a speech during which the journalist had said that “Certitude is the enemy of religion.” (I’d be fascinated to see the full text of this journalist’s remarks, or even just learn his name.)

President Hinckley’s response is challenging for someone like me. After all, I started out blogging at Times and Seasons with a series of posts about epistemic humility. (1, 2, 3, 4) I do not believe uncertainty is a worthy end in itself, but I do believe that accepting the limits of our ability to know is an essential aspect of healthy faith because it enables us to grow and change. A belief that is certain is cemented. This is a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re wrong. And—since it’s just as hard to know when we’re right about being right as about anything else—we should pour that concrete sparingly and with care.

This ambivalent attitude towards uncertainty is what makes this talk a challenge for me. In the talk, which President Hinckley says is the result of “much reflection,” he praises certainty wholeheartedly, beginning that section of his remarks by saying that “Certitude, which I define as complete and total assurance, is not the enemy of religion. It is of its very essence.”

He goes on to state that:

Great buildings were never constructed on uncertain foundations. Great causes were never brought to success by vacillating leaders. The gospel was never expounded to the convincing of others without certainty. Faith, which is of the very essence of personal conviction, has always been, and always must be, at the root of religious practice and endeavor…

Without certitude on the parts of believers, a religious cause becomes soft, without muscle, without the driving force that would broaden its influence and capture the hearts and affections of men and women.

When I first encountered the quote, I immediately went to work trying to synthesize it with my beliefs. In terms of the general thrust of the remarks, I think they are certainly true. Unless we have strong convictions, what can we hope to accomplish? As humorously ironic as it may be, it is my conviction that acknowledging uncertainty improves our faith that leads me to write about it. (I’m certain about uncertainty. Get it?) So I fully accept what I see as the central idea: that we must embrace and maintain a firm conviction in core principles. For believing Mormons, those core principles include the divinity of Jesus Christ and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.

As for the specific conflict between my qualified embrace of uncertainty and President Hinckley’s explicit embrace of certainty and certitude, I came up with an example of why I thought the rhetorical conflict might be misleading. After all, it is possible to imagine a variant of the talk that went something along these lines:

Great buildings were never constructed by timid architects. Great causes were never brought to success by self-conscious leaders. The gospel was never expounded to the convincing of others without assertiveness.

The thing is, timidity, self-consciousness and a lack of assertiveness can all be seen as synonyms of humility. I would say that my invented quote has a great degree of truth, but to take it as an attack on humility would be to take it too far. (Or in the wrong direction.)

Our faith requires us to be humble. It also requires us to be bold. There is a tension there. The tension may only exist because our language is insufficiently careful about the differences between the negative and positive aspects of the word “humility,” failing to differentiate between good humility (which we are obligated to seek out and practice) and bad humility (which would interfere with our duties as disciples). I think this is probably correct, and that—from a Godly perspective—there is no real tension. But even if it’s an illusion, it’s an illusion we have to grapple with.

If that line of reasoning is correct, then it is possible that alongside the good humility / bad humility tension there is a good certainty / bad certainty tension as well. Good certainty is the willingness to be unambiguous in our embrace of core principles for which we have pursued and won a spiritual witness, and to hold that witness through thick and then. Bad certainty is an overconfidence in the extent of our ability to know things. Good certainty is humble trust in the revelation of God. Bad certainty is cavalier trust in human wisdom. Any discussion that uses the word “certainty” is bound to misfire with at least some in the audience when the speaker has one meaning in mind and the listener has another.

It just so happens that the good certainty / bad certainty tension has become more of a sore point for some of us Mormons these days than the good humility / bad humility tension. It may also be that people naturally think of good humility first when they hear the word, and that they think of the bad certainty first when they hear that word. In either case, though, it would be possible to embrace President Hinckley’s meaning and still believe in epistemic humility. It would be possible, for example, to pursue a living and vital faith in the core principles of the Gospel—a faith of conviction and vitality—while still maintaining a careful humility when it comes to other religious and secular matters.

I was fairly comfortable with this resolution until I went and read the full text of President Hinckley’s remarks. When I got to the end, this is what I found:

To those who vacillate, who equivocate, who qualify their assertions with uncertainty when speaking of the things of God, these words from the book of Revelation are appropriate:

“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

These are pretty hard words. And, of course, as a Mormon it’s hard to think of the phrase “hard words” without immediately thinking of Laman and Lemuel’s response to Nephi’s words in 1 Nephi 16, “Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.” To which Nephi replies, “I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified.” The words might apply to me. The very moment I am certain they can’t is the moment they certainly will.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I simply don’t believe the scriptures hold out such a simplistic model of faith. One of the great stories for me is from Mark 9. A father brings forward his son, who is tormented by an evil spirit. The Lord’s disciples have tried to cast out the spirit, and they have failed. And here are the scribes, asking their questions, no doubt delighted to find an example of a failed miracle. Seeing the scene, Jesus says, “O faithless generation… how long shall I suffer you?” Then the father asks for the Savior’s help, and this is their exchange:

22 … have compassion on us, and help us.
23 Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
24 And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

The father’s desperate plea—“help thou mine unbelief”—does not sound like the vacillation, equivocation, or qualification President Hinckley decried. But it doesn’t sound at all like certitude either. And yet it was enough, at least in the eyes of the Lord, and the man’s son was healed.

I also think of President Hinckley’s description of the certitude of the Savior’s disciples following His resurrection in contrast to their uncertainty beforehand. In the talk, he says that there was no doubt on the part of Peter when so many of Jesus’ disciples turned back in Capernaum, but that is not the way that this exchange from John 6 reads to me:

66. “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
67. “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
68. “And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter’s initial response is almost an evasion. The follow up in verse 68 evinces certainty, but it does not appear to be all-encompassing. The disciples believed and were sure of Christ’s divinity, but they didn’t know what that meant. Nor did they understand all of His teachings. There was a very great deal of uncertainty co-existing alongside their certitude.

And it’s a good thing, too. Consider the disputes that rent the Church as it grew in the days after Christ’s ascension, and specifically the disputations over the proper place of their Gentile converts with regards to the Mosaic Law. Peter initially had the wrong of that, and Paul was in the right. How great of a stumbling block would it have been to the Church if Peter had been absolutely certain in his error?

President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week, when I read the excerpt. And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.

At the same time, however, I am not a literalist or an inerrantist when it comes to scripture. It doesn’t make any sense to maintain that a collection of works from genres including poetry and parable must be read literally. And, as for inerrantism, the idea that a perfect text (if it existed) could be read perfectly is an extreme form of naïve realism. All human perception, but especially communication with others (through text or speech), is not a passive receipt of knowledge but an active, grasping apprehension of meaning. Even if the scriptures were innerant—which Mormons do not believe—it would not matter very much to us, because we do not interact with the text directly, but only through the medium of our minds. Which are not inerrant. (To say nothing of the limitations of human language.) The idea of an inerrant text is a superfluous and irrelevant abstraction. And so there is no question of if scripture ought to be interpreted. Reading is interpretation. The question is how to interpret them. How to balance what we think the author is trying to convey against what we think is true of God and the world.

If this balancing act is required when we read our canonized scripture, then it is also required when we read the words of modern prophets spoken during General Conference addresses. No matter how humble we seek to be, there is no avoiding the hard work of interpretation. Even the staunchest literalist is really just preferring one particular style of interpretation over another.

And so I must interpret, but that does not guarantee my interpretation is correct. I do not know to what extent my attempt to synthesize President Hinckley’s comments with my understandings is legitimate and to what extent I am just rationalizing. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma, but I do know that it cannot be avoided. It’s my job to bring what I have to bear—knowledge, other scripture, the Gift of the Holy Spirit—to try and find the truth.

Right now?

I believe President Hinckley’s central point was about the role of conviction in faith. Without conviction we can accomplish nothing great. But I also believe that there are other sources for conviction beyond those relating to knowledge. When the father cried to Jesus, “Help thou mine unbelief,” there was a lack of knowledge but not a lack of conviction. In his case, it was the assurance of love rather than knowledge that drove his plea.

Maybe that is right. And maybe it is not even different from what President Hinckley was saying all along, and I’m just rephrasing his words in ways that make more sense to me. The father did not know about saviors or messiahs, but he knew about a sick child and one who could help. Maybe that’s a kind of knowledge after all, and maybe it’s the most important kind.

I’d like a chance to speak with President Hinckley and ask him if I got it right. Who knows? Maybe one day—if I still haven’t figured it out—I’ll get that chance.

39 comments for “The Assurance of Love

  1. I have thought quite a few times about certainty vs. uncertainty. I think the best way to be certain of things of the Gospel is to live them.

    By living the gospel you naturally obtain a testimony of the gospel. You can then testify of whatever gospel principles you have been living and how they have blessed your life.

  2. Thanks for these thoughts Nathaniel. A few of my own in response:

    1. Great buildings are often built on uncertain foundations. Such buildings exist (and last) because the constructors make necessary adjustments as some of their pre-conceived beliefs fail. The SLC Temple is a prime example. Thank God the builders had enough doubt in themselves that when they saw the cracks in the foundation stone following the Johnson raid they changed design plans rather than pursuing a path of absolute certainty in their original abilities.

    2. Great causes can be accomplished despite great fundamental flaws in the leader’s beliefs. Take Columbus for example. Clearly he had great faith to set sail past the ends of the known world. But he was still 100% wrong in his belief that he’d found Asia.

    3. Doubt and faith can exist for the same proposition; quite often they work together beneficially. As an example, consider Elder Holland’s story of driving in the desert with his father and taking the wrong fork in the road. Faith was shown by their choice to drive. Doubt was shown by their choice to stop rather than go off a cliff. Certainty in the correct path was found by exercising both faith and doubt, and learning through experience.

  3. (cont).

    4. Faith is not a fixed binary proposition, but a sliding scale. Hence, the NT father could say “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” As the thing/person that we place our faith in pays off, our certainty in them grows. The same process happens in reverse.

    5. There are a multiple of “faiths” we can have in a person or institution. Currently, I have complete faith that my 14-year-old son can mow the lawn without supervision. I have some faith that he could drive the family van to an ER if needed; that faith will grow as he gets a license and builds up experience driving. And I have no faith that he could pilot an airplane if needed. Sorry, kid.

    Applying these principles to the church, the problem I see is that we are taught to apply faith as an absolute all/nothing for all possible truth claims. Under such a view, when a member’s experiences show that her faith was misplaced with respect to one issue, she must either throw out her faith in everything, or find a different “middle way” paradigm.

    For myself, currently I have strong faith that my church leaders are not embezzling my donations, I have strong faith that they act with the members’ best interests at heart (even though they often stumble), I have growing faith that they intend to tell a complete history of church events, but I am doubtful that they decided to tell the full history because they want to (it’s more a function of “had to”), and frankly, I have zero faith that my church leaders could prepare a manned-expedition to Mars at the present time.

    In other words, like the NT father, I find myself saying “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

  4. Certainty appears to be the opposite of faith which is the first principle of the gospel. As a side note, “help thou mine unbelief” is one of the most comforting scriptures for me personally. I have a strong testimony in some areas of the gospel; in other areas I rely on my Savior to help my unbelief.

  5. Living something is indeed a good litmus test to expand our own experience and knowledge. But it does not guarantee that the same outcome will be experienced each time, nor be each person. We can make generalizations, such as “living the WoW helps deter certain diseases or addictions,” but it does not guarantee such. Many people who live the WoW get cancer or other disease. There are so many factors and variables. We also cannot know for sure what would have happened anyway, if for example, we didn’t pay tithing — would our life still have been the same? We get assurances from leaders about obedience and promised blessings, and we feel it’s true and we have certain experiences that appear to back up the assurance and cement our beliefs. But it’s still a matter of faith, because, ultimately, we still don’t know for certain. I think Nathan’s article does a good job of articulating the tension between faith and certainty. Another write talks about the tension or yin-yang of faith and skepticism: conviction and questioning in a balancing act that keep cynicism and shallow belief at bay on either end of the extreme.

  6. My problem with certainty is the gap between the evidence for something and the conviction in question.

    The evidence “I felt something uplifting and enlightening while reading the BOM” is not sufficient evidence to the claim “The Book of Mormon is a true record of God’s dealings with ancient people.”

    Now if you say, “I know the BOM is true because I handled the plates and an angel of God declared it to me,” then you have every reason to claim certainty.

    Usually what passes for certainty in the church is the idea that if you declare something with enough conviction, then just maybe you’ll really believe it.”

  7. I full-heartedly agree with President Hinckley saying, “Certitude, which I define as complete and total assurance, is not the enemy of religion. It is of its very essence.” Now religion is a very broad category, so I won’t attempt to address it in general. But Mormonism is a religion whose leaders and rank-and-file members express certitude in its central claims about history and nature. They routinely express certitude that a being whose body is of flesh and bones created all life and material substance. They routinely express certitude that one can know that the LDS church’s claims are a reality by feeling a strong feeling of euphoria. They regularly claim certainty that ancients in the Americas actually witnessed Jesus Christ and that Joseph Smith translated into English what they wrote down about Christ’s visit.

    One of my main gripes is with a trend in intellectual Mormonism common among apologists and bloggers that appeals to the rhetorical tactics of relativism and postmodernism in order to defend traditional LDS church truth claims. I frequently hear defenders of Mormonism going to the extent of saying that truth and reality are unknowable and that our understandings of reality are only guesses. That reasoning appears to contradict Mormonism, so I can’t see how it could be used as a line of defense.

  8. Brad, we can have assurance of the central claims of Mormonism. It seems just plain erroneous and perhaps even verging on idolatry to treat everything that way. Some things are revealed. Somethings aren’t. Consider say the discussion with the close reading of the Book of Mormon that’s proved surprisingly controversial. (Very surprising to me) It’s looking at what is ambiguous in the text.. While it’s fine if some want to treat it as if we have textual inerrancy I think many are looking beyond the mark when doing so.

    Of course people have different experiences and we don’t all agree. However it reminds me of the early 90’s where some members would treat any discussion that went beyond McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine as calling into question certitude. Many of these people felt that text delineated everything we were certain of. Fortunately that era’s been left behind. (Honestly I don’t blame McConkie for this – people want shortcuts)

    It’s certainly possible for Mormon believers to call too much into question. Heaven knows there are so-called intellectuals that regularly do that. Yet I also think the other problem is people who assume traditions are revealed truths.

    J Law, I agree that people extend from general revelation to making presuppositions that go beyond those revelations. However I think more people have more detailed revelation than many assume. That is, I doubt many saying they know the Book of Mormon is true are doing so just because it felt uplifting. Certainly that’s not the basis of my testimony and not those of the investigators I had whom I baptized.

    Q, I don’t think faith and certainty are necessarily opposed. I think it’s a complex relationship. At minimum I think we have to distinguish being certain from feeling certain (or conviction).

  9. I loved Pres. Hinckley but his certainty got the best of him in buying fake documents from Mark Hoffman. Then again, he bought them because he must have been uncertain about some things.

  10. Clark, I’m not sure how you’re in disagreement with me. You’ll have to reiterate (assuming that you are disagreeing). At any rate, you illustrate my point by saying, “some things are revealed, somethings aren’t.” You as a believing LDS person are expressing certitude about the idea of revelation (God giving humans information) actually existing.

    Silver Rain, I’m having a hard time seeing how you regard God and facts to be opposite. Don’t you regard the existence of God to be a fact?

  11. Currently, I have complete faith that my 14-year-old son can mow the lawn without supervision.

    Has he managed to mow the lawn before? Then you know he can mow the lawn. Have you witnessed other people’s 14-yos mow the lawn without supervision? Then you know that it is possible for a typical 14-yo to accomplish such a feat. You don’t have faith in any sense that it is meant in religious discourse. You have tons of evidence that you are basing your belief on. Faith, in the way religionists use the term, is belief without evidence.

  12. When your certainty is in God, not in the facts, certitude and humility are merely two sides to the same coin.

    I appreciate this thought.

  13. Q-

    Certainty appears to be the opposite of faith which is the first principle of the gospel.

    One could just as easily say that certainty is the end of faith. That seems to be fairly explicitly taught in Alma 32: your faith grows and grows until it becomes “perfect knowledge,” at which point faith (which is uncertain) becomes dormant because you have reached certainty.

    So they are not necessarily opposed.

    The only problem is when people try to fake certainty before they get to the real thing.

  14. Brad L-

    Faith, in the way religionists use the term, is belief without evidence.

    I will admit to having a rather visceral, knee-jerk opposition to that view. (Which I will now endeavor to temper.)

    For clarity, the “faith = believe without evidence” is what I like to call “blind faith,” and it is my position that it is not a genuine aspect of most faith traditions, but is rather a stereotype that is profoundly useful to folks who wish to make religion look bad.

    From my perspective, faith (in a religious context) has two related meanings.

    The first is faith as fidelity, which is not really about whether or not you should accept a proposition based on the evidence, but rather presupposes that you’ve had (sometime in the past) good reason to accept a proposition and now you need to stick to your guns. A great example of this take on faith is the following C. S. Lewis quote:

    Faith is the art of holding on to things in spite of your changing moods and circumstances.

    I know from experience that this kind of faith is real. In other words, I have had spiritual experiences so clear and so strong that I have thought: what more evidence could I ever want? But conviction is an emotional rather than a rational phenomena, and humans are designed in such a way that any experience becomes mundane once it has happened to you. And so profound spiritual experiences tend to go stale after a while. This is not a question of the evidence actually diminishing. It’s a question of the evidence just having less impact as it recedes into memory / is metabolized into the mundane.

    As an extreme example, you could imagine a literal angel coming down and appearing to you and talking to you for a few minutes. This becomes a profound spiritual experience, and the next day you are practically on fire with your personal witness.

    Two years later–if there are no more visits–have you started to doubt your memory? And, even if you haven’t, has the immediacty and power of your experience worn off? Probably yes, at least a little.

    In either case, you’re going to find that certain decisions / attitudes / behaviors that were easy when the experience was fresh are getting harder to follow through on. The problem isn’t one of evidence. It’s one of human frailty. Resisting that impulse and staying true to genuine spiritual experiences (even those which are less powerful than an angel) is one important aspect of faith.

    The second is faith as in the rational conclusion that spiritual things are true based on spiritual evidence. This is where we get to the idea of an “experiment” as in Alma 32. Try it out. Read the BoM. Live the Gospel. See what happens. If the results are good, this is an indication that the action was good.

    It’s evidence. But it’s not scientific evidence. It cannot be quantified. It is not controlled. It is not objective. It is not repeatable. But it is evidence, and it is not irrational to base important decisions on it.

    Most notably, science itself depends on this kind of “leap first, then see what happens” faith. This is where Hume comes in. He pointed out that we have no way to prove (for example) the law of causality. We can’t observe it directly. And yet causality is the basis for all our scientific experiments and knowledge. Without causality you’ve got nothing.

    So, how does a scientist “prove” causality? He cannot.

    If you insist that you must have evidence first, and then draw your conclusions based on it, you are repudiating science and (while you’re at it) any and every coherent view of the world. This kind of hyper-rationalism is as unrealistic as it is bizarre.

    There is some similarity between this view and blind faith in that you conduct the test first, in the hope of getting favorable results, and then see what happens as opposed to running the experiment with zero personal investment (as is the good model of a scientist), but it is awfully hard to argue seriously that what is unavoidable is irrational.

    I mean, you can. You can go full-Hume and just give up and say that induction, causality, and the whole shebang are fundamentally irrational, but you can’t actually slice religious faith off from the rest of lived human experience and say that it is uniquely irrational in a way that, say, believe in causality is not. It’s a package deal.

  15. Nathaniel, thanks for this. I never comment, but your writing almost always resonates with me. I feel this tension between certitude & faith constantly, and it’s exhausting! In my circles it almost appears to be generational. We millennials are stereotypically anti committal and distrustful, so it would make sense that our language would reflect that.I find myself instinctually shutting down when confronted with certain language, and though I try to counteract that, it continues to be a cultural barrier in my family. Despite my best efforts, it seems that 20+ years of pressing for certainty was causing me more anxiety than increase of faith, so now I just exert my efforts as my conscience dictates, hope for the best, and hope that charity really is greater than faith because I think I might be better at that one.

  16. Brad, I was trying to gently suggest that the claims about bloggers and apologists might be misplaced. Just because there are some certain things doesn’t say much about the rest. I think that many think the reality in a robust form is unknowable. This isn’t a postmodern claim but actually a Kantian one. (That’s why the things-in-themselves are cut off – although even though I agree with many postmodern figures I think Kant wrong and that things are knowable) There’s a lot here and I think acknowledging there’s a lot we don’t know is important.

  17. OK, to elaborate, faith, in the way religionists mean it, is 1) believe without evidence (much like SilverRain appears to believe – there is God and then there are facts and God has nothing to do with facts), 2) belief on evidence that is unrecognizable by modern scientific standards (and you seem to agree – “It’s evidence. But it’s not scientific evidence”), and 3) belief on evidence that is recognized as evidence only by those within a particular faith tradition.

    On the third point, that means that Southern Baptists won’t recognize what many LDS call evidence of the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon (i.e., felt the spirit, “how could have a farm boy written that?”, etc.) as legitimate evidence. Likewise, Brighamite LDS people don’t recognize what Strangite LDS consider to be evidence for the historicity of the Book of the Law of the Lord, an alleged translation of the Plates of Laban, or what followers of Christopher Nemelka consider to be evidence that he is the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith and that he translated the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. So it isn’t religion vs. science that we’re dealing with here (and it should be noted that some religions, such as Universalist Unitarianism are simply more compatible with science than others), it is one religion vs. other religions and science (well, most of the time, or at least claims commonly held in the scientific community that are incompatible with the truths claims of set religions).

    I agree with you that there is bias and tribalism in the scientific community. Some ideas are guided more by fidelity attachments than by honest inquiry into the available evidence. There are assumptive leaps taken in the scientific community as well. However, science is not another faith, nor is it faith-based. Religious communities are far more tribalistic, biased, and loyalty/authority-based than scientific communities. Their assertions about history and nature are far more bold than those in the scientific community, meaning that they are insisted upon because such-and-such an authority said so, and not because of x evidence. Those religious communities that claim there to be evidence for their claims are far more likely to have private definitions for the term evidence. What the scientific community generally accepts as evidence of its claims is much more likely to have broad acceptance across cultures and peoples throughout the world. What particular religions claim as evidence for their particular truth claims are not nearly as likely to have broad acceptance.

    As to your points about causality, by heightening the standards of evidence so much that no causality can ever be proven, you then cheapen Mormonism. For in so doing, you must concede that all other truth claims, whether they come from the scientific community or another religious community, are potentially equal in validity, and that truth is really all in the eye of the beholder. We can just believe what we want to believe regardless of the absence of evidence in favor of it, or the counterevidence against it. Better yet, we can just consider anything we want to as evidence: the evidence of x claim is my strong feeling about it, or the evidence of x claim is some person whom my community and I revere saying that x was true. Look, if you want to hold onto the extremely cynical belief that causality cannot be proven, then why not at least consider likelihood and probability. You’re not helping Mormonism by trying to turn science into a faith, or by playing semantic games with the terms evidence and rationality.

  18. Clark, many Mormon apologists and bloggers openly identify as postmodern in their worldviews. Their logic is also similar to that which is common in many relativist circles. John Charles Duffy shows many parallels between postmodernism and Mormon apologetics. It isn’t just a Kantian thing.

    there’s a lot here and I think acknowledging there’s a lot we don’t know is important.

    Appealing to the idea of not knowing only gets you so far in defending Mormonism. At some point it becomes a cop-out and a contradiction with the sentiment of knowing things to be true commonly expressed by the LDS leaders and the rank-and-file. After all, if someone who claims affiliation with the LDS church and who repeatedly rises to its defense claims that they do not know in defense of too many of Joseph Smith’s and subsequent LDS leaders’ truth claims, then we have cause to question why they are Mormon at all and on what grounds they have a testimony of that religion. You’d think that someone who is probably donating thousands of dollars annually to the LDS church and who is known publicly as a defender of traditional Mormon claims has to claim knowledge to something about the religion’s truth claims, right?

  19. Ben S, during a great deal of personal interactions with bloggers and apologists online, I have found many to describe their outlook as postmodern (I now realize that I may be identifying more people as apologists than you). I realize that many of the more widely recognized Mormon apologists do not self-identify as postmodern, but their rhetorical tactics are very similar to those in postmodern circles.

  20. Nathaniel, I agree that faith can lead to certainty… eventually… but maybe not until after we’re dead. I’m just reflecting on times in my life when I was certain and now that I am older and have more life experience I see that I was wrong or didn’t understand correctly or completely. I guess at this point in my life I’m not going for certainty. Exercising faith and asking for help with my unbelief is sufficient. Great discussion.

  21. Brad L-

    I realize that many of the more widely recognized Mormon apologists do not self-identify as postmodern, but their rhetorical tactics are very similar to those in postmodern circles.

    Be careful on that one. It is easy to confuse post-post-modernists with post-modernists.

    A post-modernist might say that truth is a matter of subjective interpretation. We inhabit our own, constructed realities.

    A post-post-modernist will concede that we inhabit our own, constructed realities, but will emphasize the constraints we face when building those constructed realities. Perception is apprehension. We build rather than perceive or receive reality. But we don’t get unlimited choice on what building blocks to use. In fact, we often don’t have much choice at all. Besides, the fact that people must construct their own reality doesn’t mean that all constructed realities are equally valid, true, useful, etc.

  22. Brad L-

    2) belief on evidence that is unrecognizable by modern scientific standards (and you seem to agree – “It’s evidence. But it’s not scientific evidence”)

    I’m not sure, but this sounds like what I would consider to be scientism, the idea that scientific knowledge is somehow objectively superior to non-scientific knowledge. This is a really sad and confused misapprehension of what science is and what it is best used for. Science must be restricted to only evaluation of evidence that is objective, quantifiable, and repeatable. Given the narrow definition, you can set quite a high bar for the reliability of scientific knowledge, but you also must confine yourself to a very narrow range of questions.

    In simple terms, science is a highly specialized tool. It is all too common for folks to become so enamored with its powers that they try to use it on every question, but the results are no better than trying to paint with a hammer.

    However, science is not another faith, nor is it faith-based.

    Yes, it really, truly is. (It is faith-based, that is. It is not another faith.) Science doesn’t work without causality. Science can’t prove causality. Therefore science rests upon a premise that is unscientific.

    Moreover, the way in which science relies on this scientifically unprovable premise corresponds quite closely to the way faith is described in Alma 32.

    The fact that authority may play more of a role in religion than science (which is obviously true) doesn’t change the fact that any attempt to break science off from the common tree of knowledge and belief as some kind of idealized, immaculate, faithless branch is doomed to failure.

    Religion, philosophy, math, science: these are all different branches of the same tree. If you trace science back to its conceptual foundations, you’re eventually going to run out of science and get to first principles (like causality) upon which science depends but which science cannot prove.

    As to your points about causality, by heightening the standards of evidence so much that no causality can ever be proven, you then cheapen Mormonism.

    I am not “heightening the standards of evidence.” I’m pointing out that the entire idea of inferring cause-and-effect from observation logically requires belief in a principle (causality) that cannot, itself, be observed.

    You can close your eyes and pretend that the problem is not there, but that doesn’t help matters very much. The foundations of science include propositions which cannot be proven scientifically.

    So what you actually have is a bunch of contemporary folks who accept the fundamental premises they need for scientism to work (in addition to causality you also get things like material monism) as articles of faith and then refuse to admit that that’s what they’ve done. But sweeping the unprovable assertions that underly a worldview under the rug doesn’t actually make them go away.

    Science depends on unprovable propositions. That’s just the reality, no matter how inconvenient some folks might find it.

    For in so doing, you must concede that all other truth claims, whether they come from the scientific community or another religious community, are potentially equal in validity, and that truth is really all in the eye of the beholder.

    Please show your work, because this doesn’t follow and I’m not even sure why you think that it does.

    Look, if you want to hold onto the extremely cynical belief that causality cannot be proven…

    The fact that a belief strikes you as uncomfortable doesn’t make it “cynical.” This is just a straightforward explanation of one of Hume’s central points. A point Kant spent much of his life building a work-around to circumvent because Hume’s point is basically irrefutable. No matter how much you might dislike it, you have to do more than wave your hands to make it go away.

    …then why not at least consider likelihood and probability. You’re not helping Mormonism by trying to turn science into a faith, or by playing semantic games with the terms evidence and rationality.

    Just because something discomforts your worldview doesn’t make it a semantic game. The argument is very counterintuitive–Hume itself wrestled with that–but it’s not that complicated. A happens. Then B happens afterwards. We can observe this. But the causation itself, that we cannot directly observe.

    That doesn’t mean that we all collapse into a puddle of abject relativism and give up. There are other approaches. But every other approach involves first assuming (however tentatively) that causality does, in fact, hold and then seeing what happens. In the case of science, assuming that causation holds lets the whole engine of science get started and a few centuries later you get lightbulbs, trains, smartphones, and penicillin. This is all great stuff. So, speaking purely pragmatically, looks like we made a good bet. Moreover, the fact that science hums along so nicely–and that we haven’t run into any contradictory evidence thus far–is suggestive that our initial leap of faith was correct. So it makes all the sense in the world to feel increasingly confident about the initial leap of faith. You can even call it probabilistic if you want. Why not?

    Which makes it clearly not relativism.

    But it doesn’t make it science, either. We made that initial leap of faith prior (logically, not temporally) to any evidence for it. And, while all the evidence in the world is compatible with it, we’re never going to actually get conclusive proof because the key question is not directly observable. (Put it another way: the idea of causality is non-falsifiable because if it does not hold, then experiments do not work, so you have no way of determining that it doesn’t hold. A non-falsifiable claim is a non-scientific one. Ergo, causality is non-scientific.) This means that science can never outgrow its unscientific underpinnings.

    That doesn’t mean science is faith.

    It means science–the whole business about repeated, controlled experiments, etc.–rests on a foundation that is unscientific and is, in fact, faith. Science comes from faith, but it is not itself faith.

    That’s only a problem for you if you have a chip on your shoulder about faith, or have this superstitious idea that science has to be cleanly divisible from all other endeavors of the human intellect. I don’t have those hangups.

  23. My takeaways:
    Acknowledging incompleteness in knowledge is good.
    Conviction can drive the construction of a great building.

    What if, due to false/faulty information/logic/conclusions, the building is built in the wrong place, or the design is outdated by the time the building is finished, or capacity is over/under estimated?

  24. The key to the answer to that question (what if your certainty is wrong) is twofold: the Atonement, and understanding what the point to creating that building is in the first place.

  25. “Don’t you regard the existence of God to be a fact?”….” (much like SilverRain appears to believe – there is God and then there are facts and God has nothing to do with facts)”

    Not at all accurate to what I said. I said you have to place your faith in God and not in the facts. That has nothing to do with God’s relationship to fact.

    I’m not sure why you jumped to that conclusion, so I’m uncertain how to address it.

  26. Silver Rain,

    I’m 100% with you on your initial point. I don’t understand the value in placing one’s faith in facts at all. But all the conversations I’ve had on the subject have led to people either refusing to engage at all or misunderstanding what I was saying. I’m glad you’re out there.

  27. Brad, I think it erroneous to say faith is believing without evidence. (Alma 32 is a good example of what that fails) I think it’s going beyond the evidence in some ways. But it’s not like there is never evidence. To give an example of this is my father says, “I’ll catch you” I don’t know absolutely he’ll catch me. However my past experiences with him give me faith he’ll catch me. That’s evidence.

    The example I’ll often give is of a light switch. If you didn’t believe the light switch would work you’d never flip it. Yet until you flip it you don’t have knowledge. So to me faith is what leads to action where we don’t yet have confirmation.

    I think this is also fairly caught up in how Hebrew conceives of truth. Truth is reliability of things (rather than correct representations of things) But reliability is always essentially a matter of what is to come. So to treat a thing as reliable as it has yet to show itself as reliable is faith.

    Faith seems hard to put in a modernist conception simply because of the different way we think about belief and knowledge. The idea of reliable objects is a bit alien. I’d add that this notion of reliability is key to Alma 32. (See this post at my blog on truth that goes through all this in more detail)

  28. Clark, “I think it erroneous to say faith is believing without evidence”

    Well, I did say, faith, in the way that religionists mean it. There is another sort of faith, which is optimism in the face of adversity, but that is quite different from the faith that pertains to religious belief.

    You believe that your father can catch you because of past experience. Basing a belief on clear patterns of the past is not basing it on faith. If you grew up with electricity, you know darn well that a light switch triggers the lights to go on. You don’t have faith that they will go on. Plus, we as humans know exactly how light switches work. We built them after all.

    There is a reliability aspect to religion, yes. But that is not what we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about the bold claims that Mormonism makes about what actually happened in the past and the nature of the cosmos.

  29. Nathaniel,

    Besides, the fact that people must construct their own reality doesn’t mean that all constructed realities are equally valid, true, useful

    On what grounds do you determine which explanations of reality are more valid, then? They are backed by compelling evidence? They are well-reasoned arguments? They conform to a traditional narrative? A perceived authority figure promotes them?

    The fact that a belief strikes you as uncomfortable

    Well, I would say nonsensical rather than uncomfortable.

    Look, my main point is that Mormonism makes bold claims about nature and history. You can’t deny that. What exactly makes these claims true? You don’t make them true by attacking/distorting science and trying to change the definitions of other words as they have been conventionally understood in intellectual communities across and modern time. What you’re doing appears to be more of an obfuscation or a dodge rather than an attempt to actual understand and clarify.

  30. Perhaps you could answer me this, Nathaniel. What is the relationship between faith and evidence? Because when I this idea promoted by leading Mormon thinkers and general authority in conference that you can choose to believe, what that says to me is that belief, in their eyes, actually has nothing to do with evidence propelling them to a set belief, but a mere personal choice.

    Also, bear in mind, I’m not saying that faith is belief without evidence as a means of downtalking faith but simply trying to describe it in the way that religious people mean it. When I hear, “I have faith,” what I hear is, “I believe, regardless of the apparent absence of evidence and counterevidence against the believe. I just believe.” To someone who has unshakable faith, there is nothing you can do or say to sway them from that belief or set of beliefs. Faith is largely belief without evidence. The true believer in a certain religion often feels no obligation to back his/her claims up with evidence. Things are just the way they are. It seems that even to you, Clark Goble, and other intellectuals that there are certain claims that you just believe, or have faith in, without evidence or the feeling of a need to provide any evidence. For instance, the idea that revelation exists. You don’t appear to try to describe what a revelation is or what evidence we have that it is an actual process that occurs. It just is and that’s that. Belief without evidence. If someone asks for evidence of revelation, the believer response is often something akin to, “you just have to believe.”

  31. Brad….I didn’t answer because your question dodges the point I was making and is meant merely to trap me in logic. I don’t generally waste effort with that.

    Though the existence of God is certainly a fact, belief in Him is not based on the fact of God’s existence, but on His character, which ought to be obvious to anyone who is interested in an actual conversation, given the contrast I was drawing.

    That you ignored my actual point, even after I clarified, leads me to believe you are interested in a sparring match, not in a discussion. Since that doesn’t interest me, this is my last comment on it for now.

  32. Though the existence of God is certainly a fact

    OK, then you have faith in a fact, don’t you?
    My aim is not to trap you in logic, it is help you refine your points. The idea that we should have faith in God and not faith in facts is a nonsensical and seemingly contradictory proposition, especially when you regard the existence of God to be a fact. I think what you really mean to say is that you shouldn’t require evidence in order to have faith. You confirm what I said earlier about faith being belief without evidence.

  33. The idea that we should have faith in God and not faith in facts is a nonsensical and seemingly contradictory proposition

    Again I think this wrong. The object of a fact is simply a different kind of object from god. If I have faith that a tent peg will act as a peg that’s different from faith in a fact. Of course what we have faith in is that some word is a fact.

  34. Thanks for your charity in instructing me so generously to help me refine my points. But trust me when I say that if you think it’s nonsensical or contradictory, if you think that what you said I really meant is what I meant, you’re completely missing my point, and are therefore at a lamentable disadvantage in helping me clarify it.

  35. You’re welcome, SilverRain, any time.

    Clark, this is what appears to be SilverRain’s reasoning In logical form:

    What we should have faith in ? facts
    What we should have faith in = God
    God = fact

    This is a contradiction in terms. It is an illogical proposition.

    What do you mean by the “object of a fact”? Facts don’t have objects, they just are. And we either understand them correctly, or we don’t. Sometimes we have the benefit of evidence to help us understand, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we misinterpret the evidence with bad logic and bad reasoning, too. What religions often assert as facts are quite often objectively unverifiable and are not based upon any evidence (at least not any that would be recognizable as evidence on any broad scale). And it is belief in these evidenceless objectively unverifiable claims about history and nature that is referred to as faith. This is what I’m hearing from religious authorities of all different religions about belief and faith.

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