“Brothers and Sisters. I’d like to bear my testimony. I don’t know this Church is true…” Have you ever heard a testimony like this? And what would you think if someone got up next Fast Sunday and started their testimony like that? Before getting into what a testimony like this might really be saying, I want to discuss one simple word – “KNOW”.
In my medical training, we had a professor who would quiz the newest medical students, interns and residents. He would put up a film (back before everything was digital and on a computer) and ask you what you saw. The typical response was something like, “The x-ray shows a broken femur.” Before you could go on, he would stop you and ask you if you could actually see x-rays. When you responded that you couldn’t, he would have you start again and clarify what you meant. You could say “The x-ray film shows…” or “The radiograph shows…”, correctly stating what you actually saw. This may sound somewhat petty, but there was a perfectly valid point. As he taught us, “Clarity of speech reflects clarity of thought.” He taught us that we need to be precise when describing something in medicine and more importantly, we needed to understand clearly what we were talking about if we were going to be taking care of patients. And if you didn’t know something, don’t make something up but just say, “I don’t know.” We all learned this lesson very quickly – perhaps because this was often done in a large auditorium before 30-50 other doctors and other medical personnel.
This appealed to me, because precision in speech has always been important to me. For example, as I dated various people before I got married, the words “I love you” meant quite a bit, so I never really said them. I actually married the first person for whom I had strong enough emotions to actually say “I love you”, and we are celebrating our 18th anniversary next month.
So, what does the word “know” mean? What do we “know”? In reality, I know very little.
There are some things that I think I know, but really don’t. In medicine, in any given situation, I do what I think is the best option for a patient. For example, I replace ACLs in the knee using a particular combination of graft, fixation devices and technique, as I think it’s the best way to do it given all of the different variables. But do I “know” it’s the best way? I don’t know. I do know I have done this procedure nearly 1000 times this way and have seen great results. But there are other surgeons at my same hospital who do the same surgery different ways, and they get great results as well. So do I “know” my way is best? Should I try to convince them that mine is the only way to do ACLs? Maybe – maybe not?
There are other areas where I am more comfortable using the word “know”. I know the sun will come up tomorrow because I understand why it appears to rise. It has happened exactly the same way every day my entire life. It is entirely predictable, not only for me for for every single other person I have ever encountered. Granted, there may be a day when it is cloudy and I can’t see the sun directly, but it still gets light. I understand that there are theoretical ways the sun might NOT come up. A planetary catastrophe may happen and stop the rotation of the earth. Or else something may cause the sun to either collapse and stop shining, or explode. I can’t even fathom what may cause any of these, so unless something completely outside the realm of my experience happens, I can reasonably say I know the sun will come up tomorrow.
So how does this pertain to religion? What does it take to “know” that something is true like we hear on Fast Sunday? It is possible in the same sense that I know that the Sun will come up tomorrow? Is it possible to “prove” something to the extent that we “know” it is true? What does it mean to “know” a religious truth?
To look at this, consider the Book of Mormon as an example. President Hinckley taught that the whole foundation of the Church rests upon that book. So, how can we “know” the Book of Mormon is true? Can it be proven archeologically? Probably not, at least at this point. There isn’t really any archeological evidence that anything in it took place. There are some sites that people suggest might represent Bountiful in the Old World. Others suggest that this is overreaching. Conversely, some people point out things like elephants and horses as evidence that the Book of Mormon is false. But others suggest that absence of evidence is not the same as negative evidence. So archeology likely isn’t the way to “know” the Book of Mormon is true.
On my mission, we used Moroni 10:3-5 as a way to help people “know” the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. In these verses, Moroni tells us that if we read the Book of Mormon and pray with real intent that we will know that it is true. We are also told that we “may know the truth of all things.” But how does this work? In my life, I have read the Book of Mormon probably 15 times. I have followed Moroni’s promise and prayed about it probably 100 times. This included as a child raised in the church, as a youth in seminary, in my Book of Mormon class at BYU, on my mission, while serving in a number of various callings, etc. I prayed as sincerely as anyone could have prayed. But in all this, I have never received an answer where I can say that I “know” it is true. And I have seen this happen many times in other people. As opposed to the sun rising every day, Moroni’s promise seems to work sometimes and doesn’t seem to work other times. It seems somewhat unpredictable.
So how else can I “know” the Book of Mormon is true? I HAVE felt good feelings when I have read it. I HAVE felt the Spirit confirm passages of truth that resonate with my soul. Perhaps this is the answer. Perhaps this is what I need to “know” that the Book of Mormon is true with all that implies. But, I have felt the exact same feelings when I have read the Qu’ran. I have felt the same when I have read the Bhagavad Gita. I have been profoundly moved when reading the Dhammapada. Does this mean that Islam is true AND Hinduism is true AND Buddhism is true. I feel the exact same feelings reading all of those as I do when I read the Book of Mormon.
So, can I say I “know” the Book of Mormon is true? I honestly don’t know. And the same goes for many other things in the religious world. A testimony of God, of Christ, of Joseph Smith, of the Church, etc. Maybe, for many people, they just don’t “know”. But is this a bad thing? Maybe we don’t need to “know”. Maybe relying on faith is enough.
Most people would consider Mother Teresa as close to God as anyone. She devoted her life to God and to ministering to the least fortunate among us. But as described in a recent book, she experienced a “dark night of the soul” for decades. She felt like she didn’t even know if God was there for her. Consider her words:
Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
Mother Teresa could not say “I know” but lived by faith. And this is not unique to Mother Teresa. People commonly express frustration with not being able to “know” that God loves them, that the Church is true, or many other areas. Consider this recent post by Derek on FMH. There are hundreds of other people who have also posted how they feel inadequate because they can’t say “I know”. There are many others who feel that they are “less” of a member because of this. On any given Fast Sunday, it seems that the same 15 people always get up. Is this because they are the only ones who like to speak? Is this because they are the most spiritual? Or is this because they are the ones who are comfortable saying “I know”? Is there a silent majority who can’t say “I know”? I don’t have an answer to this, but it is worth at least considering.
As per this series, there are a number of practices in our Church that have the potential to turn people off or serve as a wedge. The practice of saying “I know” in place of “I believe” may be part of the vernacular for many people, but for many others, the inability to say “I know” creates a very real feeling of inadequacy and of not belonging.
For some, saying “I Know” in a testimony is a “Sacred Molehill.” I would make “I Believe” equally as valid.
- I would eliminate the practice of young children getting up and saying “Iwanttobearmytestimonyand IknowthisChurchistrue andIknowtheBookofMormonisttrue andIsaythesethingsinthenameofJesusChristAmen” as someone whispers it in their ear. Some people may think it is cute, but in my opinion, it cheapens the meaning of the word “know”.
- I would give a talk in General Conference where I would repeat D&C 46:13-14 where it says that some are given to “know”, while others are given to “believe on their words” – implying that not everyone needs to “know”.
- I would give a talk in General Conference reminding everyone that when Joseph Smith wrote what became the Articles of Faith, he used “We believe” and not “We know”.
- I would give a talk in General Conference reminding us that we are to live by FAITH, which is NOT the same as knowledge.
- I would give a talk in General Conference and bear my testimony – “Brothers and Sisters. I’d like to bear my testimony. I don’t know that the Church is true. I don’t know that the Book of Mormon is true. I’ve never seen God or Jesus Christ. But … I do believe in God. I hope that by the way I am living my life that I am showing my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I am thankful for the truth that I have found in the Book of Mormon and in all of the other scriptures that we enjoy. I am thankful for prophets like Joseph Smith who touched the divine and who brought back messages to help us be better people. I have been blessed tremendously by God in my life and I hope to be able to share these blessings with others. I am privileged to call you my brothers and sisters and hope that we can all someday be together with God in the world to come. In the name of ….”
I would Make “I Believe” As Valid As “I Know”.
- Do you hear many testimonies that don’t say “I know” in your ward?
- What does it mean when someone feels the same feelings when reading the Book of Mormon as they do when reading the Qu’ran or some other scripture? Does the spirit confirm “truth” where ever it occurs? And, if so, how can that person say they “know” one book is true but the other one is not?
- Could you picture a bishop of a ward who couldn’t say “I KNOW this Church is true” or “I KNOW the Book of Mormon is true”? A stake president? A General Authority?
- How about a missionary or a mission president who couldn’t say “I KNOW…”? Does that work?
- Is there a limit to roles you can have in the Church if you can’t say “I KNOW”?
In the comments to some posts in this series, people have suggested that the changes proposed are wrong – that people who aren’t willing to do the extra things that are “required” are not really good members anyway or that perhaps the Church is better off without them. My rebuttal to this comes from the New Testament: 1) Christ rejected all of the non-doctrinal ticky-tacky things that had encrusted the Law in His time, and 2) despite many early church members feeling that circumcision was essential to being a “good member”, because it potentially served as a stumbling-block to spreading the gospel to the Gentiles, it was changed.
Similarly, the whole point of this series is the same. As pointed out in the first post that started this series, our growth is slowing significantly, and is even stagnating in some areas of the world. We can either accept this and hope that something external will change, or we can perhaps look at non-doctrinal practices that get in the way of people either in the church or investigating the church. Some of these things we’ve discussed include Stop Counting Earrings, Changing Women’s Garments (And Men’s), Separating Marriage From Sealing, and Ignoring Tattoos.
If any of these non-doctrinal things have caused even ten or one hundred people to leave the church, are they been policies worth having? If is the potential downside is there, why not change them? (Of note: while these are things I would do if I were in charge, this is all theoretical as there really isn’t any chance of that actually happening.)