As Much As I Know Anything

March 31, 2014 | 28 comments
By

2014-03-31 Before the Pulpit“Out of curiosity, what makes you believe in Mormonism? Or God for that matter?”

This is a question I got from a close friend, more or less out of the blue, the Wednesday before last in a Facebook conversation that had been—up to that point—mostly about how much I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.

It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve been asked that, but it’s a question I’ve struggled unsuccessfully to answer in the past. I’ve tried on more than one occasion to sit down and write out my reasons, but I always failed. Eventually I gave up.

And then, last week, I found that the answer had been there all along. And it was pretty simple. Looking back, I’d say that was the problem. For all I love to write about epistemic humility, doubt, and uncertainty I have just about the simplest and most conventional Mormon testimony that it is possible to have. And maybe, in the past, I’ve been a bit ashamed to admit that there’s nothing special, profound, or unique about my testimony. I guess I just thought I was too good for my own testimony.

That was half the problem, but there’s another half, too. My other dirty little secret is that for all the time I spend talking about doubt and uncertainty, when it comes to my religious faith I just don’t have serious doubts in the way that most people understand the term.

That doesn’t mean I’m insincere when I focus on a concept like epistemic humility. First, it really is very important for me that we make room among the Saints for those of us who doubt. It’s the only sensible thing to do based on D&C 46. But there’s more to it than that.

I have seen men and women smarter and better than me in every way go through dark storms and come out broken and confused on the other side, their faith reduced to incomprehensible shards in their hands. I’ve watched them struggle back, too, and build a newer and a stronger faith. But there’s an incredible period of vulnerability once you’ve fallen from such a height. And so I’ve got a very real and pressing interest in making the sure that the pews are comfortable for those who wrestle with uncertainty. One day the storm-wrought shipwreck could be my own.

So far, however, it has not been. So far the reasons for the hope that are in me are the same as they always have been. So this is my simple testimony, in two parts. First, I have always had a conviction that I have a home outside this world. I cannot provide any grand or significant basis for that conviction, but it has been with me as long as I have any memory of my mortal life.

Second, I have received personal evidence of the reality of the things we talk about, from God’s love to the power of angels to protect His children. Not every prayer has been answered, but there has never been a time in my life when I mustered the courage to go out on a limb for my Lord and He left me there hanging. (There have, by contrast, been too many occasions when I simply lacked the courage to put my faith to the test.) I have witnessed miracles on multiple occasions, some private and some public. And really: how many signs should it take?

2014-03-31 Art of Holding On

And yet despite all of this, I am still terrified of death at times and cannot find any comfort from an emotional conviction that I will live on after this life after all. There are times when, to be quite frank, it all just seems rather silly, this whole religion and God thing. This doesn’t give me a good reason to doubt my faith. It just shows me how fickle human perception can be. At the end of a long, dark, and cold winter I find that summer’s warmth takes on an illusory sense in my mind. Intellectually I know that in July stepping outside in a sweatshirt (in Williamsburg, VA) will seem insanely oppressive, but with the biting wind making my teeth chatter it’s hard to really feel any conviction about that fact.

That is one kind of doubt I most assuredly have. When I set aside my spiritual duties my testimony begins to fade. But not because I have found some new evidence that makes it seem less credible. It’s just because in the winter it’s easy to forget summer’s heat. When we focus too much on the things of a world that is alien to our Lord, we lose the ability to see truths that would otherwise be right before our eyes.

That’s the real reason I have for spending so much time thinking and writing about theology. It keeps the things that are important to me real to me. I take my theological questions seriously, but only as a buffer to protect my faith. Not as their ultimate font. Intellect can serve to preserve a patch of soil on which faith can grow, but it can’t provide the plant itself. I realize that the talk of using intellect to defend faith is one of those things that raises red flags for people, and on those flags is written the phrase: “wishful thinking.” I recognize that concern, but here’s why–in my particular case–I am not so troubled by it.

As a kid I had mild but noticeable OCD tendencies. I have a couple of patterns that I repeat endlessly by tapping my fingers or my feet, or by playing with the CTR ring I still wear on my right hand. (It’s a silver one my mother got me when I was 18, not the kind we hand out in primary.) I used to need to check, by touch, to see that I had locked a door. And then check it again. And again. And, as Orson Scott Card so eerily wrote about in the later books in the Ender series, these OCD tendencies had a religious aspect as well. I would often feel the need to repeat my night-time prayers again and again and again. And then again and again, because it just never seemed like I could be really sure I had done it right.

This was confusing then, but it’s actually become a strength to me now. Because now I know quite well that there are different kinds of voices in my head, and that some of them are not worth listening too. I understand the subjective nature of personal revelation. That’s where the question “How do you know you didn’t just invent it?” comes from. The response I’ve found in my life, although I stumbled upon it by accident, was to engage in some trial and error. Over many years of struggling with random impressions I have gained the benefit of being able to recognize a lot of impressions that aren’t spiritual.

Am I certain? No, I am not. I haven’t been certain of anything in my life since reading Descartes’ Meditations in an undergraduate philosophy course. It may sound hokey, but I was a person who really, really believed in the idea of certainty and I was 100% behind Descartes’ whole project. I followed his logic down every step of radical doubt until he got to his famous “I think, therefore I am.” But then, when he tried to assemble his new vision for certainty I couldn’t follow him back out of the hole he had dragged us both into. I’ve been stuck there ever since. Certainty isn’t part of my life anymore.

2014-03-31 Sailors on the Open Sea

So no, my faith in God is not certain. But neither is my faith in any part of reality. As far as I can tell, there really is no certain basis for believing that I’m not a butterfly dreaming I’m a man. Maybe we’re all in the Matrix. How would we know? This might seem to have limited practical utility, and that’s probably true, but it does a pretty amazing job of putting doubts about Lamanite genetics into perspective. We live in a world where anyone who claims to understand the rules that govern our universe is lying or deluded[1] and where the idea that our entire universe is a giant simulation is taken seriously[2]. So, yeah, I understand that there are legitimate reasons to doubt and be concerned about the existence of God or the historicity of the Book of Mormon but those doubts just don’t cast quite as long a shadow as they might once have.

And so it is that despite the fact that I advocate folks feel free to use the phrase, “I believe” to replace the over-used “I know,” (and I’ve tended to use it myself, just to make a point), the reality is that if I were to state my testimony as accurately as possible, it would begin with a very sincere, “I know, as much as I know anything,…”

————————————————————–

[1] “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” – Niel Bohr and also “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” – Richard Feynman

[2] There have been a lot of articles written about this, some more serious than others, but here’s just one easily-accessible pop account to get you started.

28 Responses to As Much As I Know Anything

  1. Sarah Familia on March 31, 2014 at 9:07 am

    I loved this, Nathaniel, for its self-reflectiveness, empathy, and candid optimism. A lot of it really resonated with me. I, too, was permanently unhinged by Descartes in a freshman philosophy class. Some days I feel like I will be forever stuck at the intersection of doubt and faith, roiling in the uncertainty of the unknowable void, yet unable, unwilling to completely give up on my faith, because it too seems to touch on something ineffably real.

    The solution you seem to have found in your life bridges the chasm with grace. I wish I could feel as comfortable with my eternal lack of certainty as you sound. And I deeply appreciate your acknowledgment that not everyone has found that elusive balance of faith and doubt.

    These lines exhibit such a tangible, compassionate humility: “One day it could be me. And so I’ve got a very real and pressing interest in making the sure that the pews are comfortable for those who wrestle with uncertainty. One day the storm-wrought shipwreck could be my own.”

  2. IDIAT on March 31, 2014 at 9:32 am

    “And really: how many signs should it take?” My thoughts exactly. I think I have a fairly simple, testimony, too. And when I get into a “mood,” I remind myself that if all it is neurons firing, and that upon death there truly is nothingness, then at least I will have (hopefully) left the earth a better place for my family. If the church is nothing more than a tool to help us help others so as to perpetuate the human species, then it is worth it.

  3. plg on March 31, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Brilliantly written. Loved it.

  4. Jim Cobabe on March 31, 2014 at 10:30 am

    A Latter-day Neo, boldly exploring the boundaries of solipsism. I blog, therefore I am…

  5. Josh Smith on March 31, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Nathan, thank you for taking the time to write this. For what it’s worth, your writing here really left a mark on my mind and heart today. Thanks for your efforts.

  6. anonymous on March 31, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    I like taking the relative approach to truth, but I feel I know the Earth goes around the Sun much more than I know their is a God. That is true even while acknowledging that we know very little about the universe and maybe the idea that the earth goes around the Sun is only true in a very simplistic way if we really understood the fabric of the universe(s)or space/time or however you want to phrase it.

    At least the earth/sun thing is observable and testable. My experience with God comes nothing close to that. That isn’t to say that God isn’t much more complex, or I don’t understand how to interact with God. But I feel like my knowledge their is much more limited and that the things taught in the church haven’t held up in practice.

    I feel like a string theorist who tries to reconcile what my experience has been with what the church teaches and while I can come up with some answers that satisfy both, the answers are very different than what is accepted by your typical TBM person and that leads to church not providing a sense of spiritual community, because I have rejected their simplistic “know” framework.

  7. Cameron N. on March 31, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Not to derail the thread, but regarding your fear of death, here is a fun recent story about something that happened last week:

    http://www.glennbeck.com/2014/03/31/god-lives-and-it-is-all-true-glenn-reflects-on-the-passing-of-his-father/

  8. Bradley on March 31, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    Loved this. Thanks Nathaniel.

  9. Nathaniel Givens on March 31, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks for all the kind words, folks. Just a couple of quick notes.

    Sarah,

    I think one thing that has helped me find some peace with the lack of certainty is the idea that it’s a feature rather than a bug. I haven’t really found a way to fully articulate what I have in mind yet, but when I can figure a way to express it, I will. In the meantime, uncertainty strikes me as a purposeful discomfort. That makes it easier to live with. Like the difference between the pain of working out (good) and the pain of injury (bad).

    anonymous-

    but I feel I know the Earth goes around the Sun much more than I know their is a God

    They key word there, for me at least, is “feel.” Everyday things feel true to use because we are constantly exposed to them. That’s what I was trying to get at with my winter/summer analogy. Sometimes when I’m out walking the dog in late winter and not wearing enough to really be warm, I imagine how I would feel wearing the same clothes in July. And it actually takes effort. I know in my head how hot it’s going to feel, but sometimes I just can’t really make it seem real. The same thing happens in summer, too. I just can’t imagine it being so cold that I could bundle up in a thick winter jacket and still shiver.

    So do you feel much more confident about the Earth going round the Sun then you do about life-after-death? Sure. Of course you do. One is a part of your everyday experience. One isn’t.

    In the same way: when I study, pray, and meditate regularly my sense of the spiritual solidifies. It feels real to me because it is part of my life. When I go weeks or months without really paying any attention, it turns to fog. The important thing is that I have had no new evidence to change my beliefs. It just feels less real because I’m not experiencing it regularly any more.

    I think you can imagine lots of examples like this. The incredible joy of feeling healthy immediately following a really serious illness can feel so good it’s like a drug. But within a couple of days you’re just used to it. Getting really invested in an Internet debate can make it some critically important, but when something snaps you out of it for an hour or two, you go back and can’t remember why it seemed so important.

    The basic idea is that we construct our reality (meaning “our sense of the real”) based on what we choose to look at. And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what is really real (meaning “objectively true.”)

  10. Cameron N. on March 31, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Nathaniel, I’m a big fan of this scripture, I would guess you are too?

    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.

    1st Corinthians 13:12

  11. Adam G. on March 31, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    This is the definition of faith that makes the most sense to me, though it doesn’t quite fit all the scriptural usage.

    This sense of faith is a form of literal integrity, the determination that I will be a whole with my past selves. The me that prayed about the Book of Mormon and got a divine answer is still me, even when I feel like entropy is the only real thing.

    That’s why faith is eternal.

  12. Nathaniel Givens on March 31, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Is that your own definition, Adam, or something you found elsewhere? I like it.

  13. Martin James on March 31, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Or one could have a view of the atonement that it creates a new self with each episode of repentance.

  14. Adam G. on March 31, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    NG, who knows? I think its my own idea but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  15. Jim Cobabe on March 31, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    I am wont to heed more recent counsel:

    I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.

    Elder Holland, April 2013 General Conference

  16. Curtis Pew on March 31, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    Yes, uncertainty is a feature, not a bug. In the preexistence we stood in the presence of God and had certain knowledge of him, but then we had to come to earth to learn how to live with uncertainty. What else does it mean to walk by faith?

    Since I have a degree in Physics, I feel compelled to comment the Bohr and Feynman quotes. If you’ve really studied quantum mechanics and can still believe in it, you shouldn’t have any trouble believing in angels or gold plates. The gospel that Joseph Smith restored is weird and confusing and sometimes incomprehensible, and so is reality.

  17. Steve Smith on March 31, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    “First, it really is very important for me that we make room among the Saints for those of us who doubt. It’s the only sensible thing to do based on D&C 46″

    Well said. I strongly agree.

  18. Michelle on April 1, 2014 at 12:45 am

    Loved this essay, Nathaniel. Thank you.

  19. Adam G. on April 1, 2014 at 12:57 am

    Alas, I have my doubts about that interpretation of D&C 46 . . .

  20. Steve Smith on April 1, 2014 at 3:55 am

    “I have my doubts about that interpretation of D&C 46″

    Please do elaborate. Should the core believers not make room for those who doubt? I suppose it is one thing to ask someone to leave who is creating a scene and openly and deliberately trying to create dissension in the church. But the injunction to “never…cast any one out from your public meetings, which are held before the world” in D&C 46:3 seems fairly straightforward. The LDS church claims a membership of 15 million. Now, I’d be willing to bet that the majority of those 15 million are more doubter than believer, yet they are still numbered among the membership and continually invited to come to church.

  21. theoldadam on April 1, 2014 at 8:23 am

    “Out of curiosity, what makes you believe in Mormonism? Or God for that matter?”

    As much as I know anything, I believe that Christ Jesus died for the ungodly…for people like me…who just are not up to living the way that God demands of me.

    I know it, because He has made a believer out of the like of me, a real sinner.

  22. Sebastian Dick on April 1, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    An interesting post, Nathaniel, as always.

    What would it take to convince you that (in as much as you know anything) propositions such as God exists or the BoM is historical are false? Or do you consider such propositions unfalsifiable?

  23. theoldadam on April 1, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    I think this one might interest you, Sebastian:

    http://theoldadam.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/i-believe-that-i-cannot-believe.mp3

    He states that we cannot believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.

  24. Jared on April 1, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    If we agree that the concept of testimony can be summed up in three words on a continuum: believing, knowing, and certainty, then the question needs to be asked where does believing become knowing, and knowing become certainty?

    I’ll attempt to answer my own question.

    As I have thought about this using the examples provided in the Book of Mormon I arrive at the following:

    I think believing is a state in which one doesn’t have a proof other than the conviction which exist in their mind and heart. It is more of a feeling that moves them to action. (Sam, Nephi’s brother may be a good example)

    I think knowing is a state in which one has proof that is so compelling that is would be illogical to say they believe. Proof can be provided in many ways, a vision, a dream, hearing a voice, receiving a remission of sins, etc that provides an outcome that is verifiable to the one who receives it. (Enos 1:2-on and the people of king Benjamin Mosiah 4:3-on)

    I think certainty is a state in which one has an experience where the is veil parted in some way. (Mosiah 27:11 on, Helaman 5:23-on)

  25. Sebastian Dick on April 2, 2014 at 2:27 am

    theoldadam, I listened to the clip – the speaker brings concepts and context that I don’t have to words such as belief. At a very basic level, I agree with him in that I don’t personally hold belief to be a choice (I am convinced by a proposition or I am not convinced by it – I can hypothesize that it is true, I can act as if it is true, but I cannot simply choose whether I think it is or is not true). Anyway, I would be enlightened to know more specifically how you think this addresses the question I posed.

    To clarify, I often hear non-believers respond to the question What would it take to change your mind? with answers such as God rearranging stars in the sky to spell a message. I’d be interested to hear Nathaniel’s (or others’) response to the same question. Does ”How many signs should it take?” hold true in the negative direction, as well as the positive one? These are intriguing questions that I have struggled with.

  26. theoldadam on April 2, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Glad you listened, Sebastian.

    Som many Christians believe we have “free-will” to make ‘the choice’.

    We do not. Our wills have already made their choice…and that is to NOT believe.

    But God brings His will into play. And His is the only will that truly is free.

    Thanks.

  27. Nathaniel Givens on April 13, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Hey, Sebastian. I just wanted to let you know that I thought your question was quite good, but that my response would be too long for a comment. In fact, it’s currently about 2,600 words. :-)

    I’m going to finish it up and post it tomorrow AM as my post. Just wanted to let you know I was working on it.

  28. Sebastian Dick on April 14, 2014 at 12:09 am

    I look forward to it.

Leave a Reply