My job requires me to brief management on subjects that can sometimes require interpretation. I was given some advice by a coworker to “tell them what you know, tell them what you don’t know, and tell them what you believe. More importantly, make sure they know the difference between the three.”
I was wonder how this would apply to a church setting. Years ago when I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher, I would designate one side of the front of the classroom as “my opinion space”. I told the class that when I stepped to that corner, I was giving my opinion. It worked quite well, as I would also announce I was moving to the corner to give my opinion.
What if we applied that advice my coworker gave me to all our church leaders? Let’s start with talks in General Conference. The first problem I see is that most Mormons do not differentiate between what they know and what they believe. Especially at the General Authority level, if they believe something, they know it, and there is very little they don’t know or will admit they don’t know unless it is controversial, and then they just throw up their hands and say “We don’t know what God what thinking”.
The Church Essay on Blacks and the Priesthood does follow this advice. To paraphrase: We know the church did not let Blacks receive temple blessings before 1978, we don’t know why this was instituted, but we believe Brigham Young started it and he was a product of his time.
Wouldn’t it be great if every talk in General Conference was required to follow this? Instead of just saying “I know the Book of Mormon is true”, they would say “I know the Book of Mormon has provided great blessings for my family as we read and follow its teachings. I don’t know how it was translated or how Joseph Smith wrote it, but I believe it was done through the power of God and is His words for us.”
What other ways could this “Know/Not Know/Believe” rule be applied in a religious setting, or does it not apply at all? Is it too hard to differentiate “feelings/belief” from the truth (facts)? Is this better suited for secular settings, with religion left to fuzzy feelings as the definer of truth?
I have heard a story about another teacher who would toss his tie over his shoulder anytime he was stating his opinion. While a fine practice, this differentiation has become impossible for me. What does the church teach is absolute truth anyway? I can’t seperate my opinion from truth unless I can be sure of what the church is teaching as truth. Things are doctrine until they are policy, or true until the next guy decides they aren’t. If it’s said in General Conference, or the newsroom, or the manual, is it truth? What happens when these sources contradict each other? Does my personal knowledge/belief/truth supercede that of RMN’s? I’d say the vast majority of things taught in LDS classes are “opinion” to some degree or another.
You may have to allow for different ways of knowing before you start parsing what you do and do not know into different categories. To most faithful Latter-day Saints revelation is much more than “fuzzy feelings.” It’s a way of knowing that’s not easily expressed in empirical terms–but it is knowledge nonetheless.
I just want to say this: Since I exited the Church, I have answered many questions with “I don’t know”. And in my previous life, I would have found that very disturbing. But I’ve discovered that it is very liberating. I’m not a lazy learner. I’m not looking for an easy way out. In fact, I search for truth much more than I did in my previous life. I’m just not sure about the search results.
There’s a certain level of humility required to have the mentality I now have (wait am I bragging that I’m humble — that doesn’t sound very humble). But I’m serious about this. You have to be willing to admit you don’t know what you once thought you did. I wish LDS leaders were capable of this but I don’t think they are. I could be wrong. But I don’t see any evidence.
Funny enough, two days ago I was trying to give my current definitions of these very words to my wife, and contrasting with how I used to speak and how TBM typically use them in a religious context.
Here’s my current definitions and use:
Hope—something I want to be true.
Belief—something I think as true or likely true with or without evidence.
Faith—something I want to be true or believe to be true, and therefore pursue with actions.
Knowledge—something I perceive as being true because I can replicate results to myself or others consistently with evidence.
Truth—something that is real and actual outside of myself.
I think one can come up with their own definitions that make sense in different ways. My list above is simply trying to differentiate but also make possible interactions between those terms.
For me, in a spiritual or religious setting, knowledge and truth are really hard to come by. Hope, belief, and faith make more sense in a religious setting but are less compelling for a group or more easily criticized.
The LDS use of these terms through the years has been so poorly managed, and in some cases felt intentionally conflated to deceive, that it now speaks more to your standing in the church in how you receive a talk or interpretation of scripture. If you are “all in” you don’t really blink when someone says, “I know the Church is true” (or something similar). But if you are “all in” it sounds strange or weak to hear one say, “I hope the Church really is true.” Conversely, when you are me, you wince in mental pain when the first is stated out loud, and you hold the speaker of the second phrase in high esteem.
So I would say that, yes, religion is the safe harbor for fuzzy feelings being converted into proclamations of divine truth. And I do not see that changing anytime soon.
Young children ask some of the best questions.
Some inexperienced parents instruct their children with “because mom/dad says so”, or it’s not important”. These authority techniques are quicker and easier than long explanations. Life is busy, right?
It is amazing how we can remember details from our childhood of what was said and where. The older we get, the decades run together and details and conversations can blend. Many things I told my kids I forgot, but my kids can rattle then off.
When questions arise, some parents do not know the answer and will make up answers to a child’s sincere question. In other scenarios, a parent may set up unnecessary rules and punishments, if they run a tight ship for asking the wrong thing. “We don’t talk about Bruno”, or sex.
A seasoned parent/grandparent takes time to answer questions. A more complicated question may be answered with exposing various points of view. (How can you if you think there is only 1 way). Each of us, in the role of a teacher can improve, as Bishop Bill did by differentiating opinion vs. fact. As a teacher, one needs to know the subject matter. Once learned, then know your audience and which teaching techniques will be most effective. As a student we also need to learn the subject and then learning is enhanced with questioning.
As a young student, I was never exposed to critical thinking. Even in my undergraduate degree (BYU) I learned by purely memorization. I was never taught or encouraged to question. Not until I completed my doctorate degree did I start to think, and not memorize. From a young age, I was taught all the answers were in the church
Worse than a busy, inexperienced parent the church gives 1/2 answers of partial truths, deniabilty (we never taught that), we told you it was in an obscure ensign article in 1973 and the worst follow the prophet, doubt your doubts and put a question mark behind everything not quoted from the prophet. Bodnar even changes the originsl questions.
The Q15 do not know. Why would God tell the Q15 details of how many earings a woman should wear?, or the exact place to build a temple, or who should be called bishop,……..but does not know about why God did not allow blacks to have the priesthood or details of mother in heaven. For questions more important than revelation of a new logo, they have no answers. ……….they know that BY started the priesthood ban
What happened to learning? Is the purpose of life to learn and be tested and tried or is it only obedience to the Q15 and honor them on their red thrones?
When I read about some past epochs of true learning in the LDS church, the 1920 BYU, the Cambridge,MA camelot ward or the 1960 Lenard Arrington of the 1970. They are all followed by labels of apostasy, excommunication, intellectuals are the enemy, and dumming down of the curriculum.
The recent mormon podcast on Michael Quinn highlights how he was excommunicated for what is being sorta taught today (along with Fawn Brody and dozens of others).
The LDS church is scared, and they should be !! True learning is NOT part of the LDS DNA. Only memorize and be obedient. And if you have an opinion or experience outside of the church mandate, do not share it. This younger generation is more aware. They are asking questions, and many are getting inappropriate answers from unknowing leaders. For those of us with decades in the church we can see within our lifetime how the doctrine, the temple and everything that made mormonism mormonism has changed.
There should be no surprise why so many of us no longer participate. I wish my grandkids well and anxious to teach them the truth and deal with the hard questions. The younger generation will remember all this current Q15 hypocrisy
The whole church needs a class on the real definition of ” I know” vs ” I believe”
The most important question is: why do we believe what we believe relating to religious doctrines. Answer: Because since we were infants that’s what our parents repeatedly told us. And children place their utmost belief, faith, and trust in parents. Second, environment has a huge influence relating to what we believe. If parents, siblings, friends, relatives, and associates share the same beliefs, and practice the same from childhood, our beliefs will be reinforced. Third, indoctrination: such as primary children bearing testimonies of knowing that God lives, Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, and the BOM is true. There are, of course exceptions to the rule, but by and large we believe what we believe because our parents have told us so, the environment in which we are raised confirms so, and we have been subject to indoctrination from a very young age.
I like the idea. I think we are very poor practitioners of it in the Church. Perhaps the part that bothers me the most is that I fear sometimes we are not very good at knowing when we don’t know something. Which can be a particular problem when it comes from the top.
The example that comes to my mind is the long running evolution vs. creationism debate. This issue is mostly dominated by two apostles (Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie) who spoke with great certainty against evolution. For Elder Smith, the chasm between the gospel and evolution was unbridgeable. For Elder McConkie, it made his top 7 Deadly Heresy list. They did not speak in terms of “belief” or “maybe” or “my opinion”. They spoke in terms that invoke certainty. Even the Church never officially accepted their beliefs (always trying to maintain an air of neutrality towards evolution vs. creationism), their statements of certainty drive one of the more contentious issues I see debated in the Church.
As I approach the issue, perhaps the most interesting question I often ask myself is if Elders McConkie and Smith were capable of recognizing that their certainty was misplaced — that they could not recognize that they really only believed but could not know what they taught. And then when I look at other issues (Brigham Young often figures big here), it seems that part of many of the Church’s historical issues stem not only from what leaders have taught, but also the certainty with which they taught them. Would the temple and priesthood ban possibly been reversed years and decades earlier if only Brigham Young (and those who succeeded him in the apostleship) had spoken with less certainty about the (now disavowed) reasons why the ban existed? If they were able to see that they really didn’t know all of they things they thought they knew?
Another driver of this problem in the Church is that we (both in and out of the Church) have become fond of quotable quotes and other soundbites. It often seems to me that statements of certainty are much more amenable to a soundbite culture. Rather than wrestle and discuss the nuances and difficulties of knowing, not knowing, believing, and so on, we quickly (and lazily??) latch on to the easy soundbites of certainty.
Just a couple of thoughts.
As I read and hear what political-activist evangelical pastors are saying these days (and the Christian evangelism invoked by many politicians), I usually dismiss their “knowing” what they adamantly proclaim as God’s own word on the topic at hand. When a TBM, it was extra easy to do because they were a different flavor than Mormon evangelism. I realize that there is still an element of that in my present reactions. But the bigger picture is not as much as which sect is speaking, but what they are saying. Do their words lead to kindness, charity, and love for our fellow man? If not – what is the origin? I’m not big on blaming Satan, so I chalk it up to fear. Fear of NOT knowing. NOT being certain. NOT having an answer to difficult questions and complex issues.
Yesterday I had breakfast with 15 or so fathers of LGBTQ+ kids. Now that meeting restrictions have eased, it was great to see old friends and make some new ones. Lots of sharing and caring and helping going on.
But also, some fear. This is not a good time in the US for LGBTQ+ people and issues in this country. Trans kids are especially in legislative gunsights. The affirming measures that have brought so much peace, better mental health, happiness, and hope for a good life, are being picked off: Bill by Bill, State by State. Old fears are compounded as new realities set in.
At the root of it all is men and women claiming to know God’s will. Justifying a new siege on Jericho “because God”. So when “What I Know, Don’t Know, and Believe” meets the real world, it can get pretty ugly and destructive.
The verbage we hear in meetings; I know the churchis true, I know the BofM is true. I know the prophet is true etc ect, does more to set up a binary us and them it creats claas in the church, Those who know are the upper class everynf ese remains silent. it reinforce the “only True Church and the “chosen people” “Bow your head and say yes!” Yet we are told that all peple are “Gods children.”
The church’s/leaders’ certainty about truth claims and doctrines are one thing, but the thing I personally regret most is that I believed their certainty about *people.* They knew who was happy, who was righteous, who was worthy, who was blessed, who was correct.
Meant to add: I missed out because I was unwilling in many cases to set aside my preconceptions .
Mother Teresa had serious doubts, even questioning her belief in God. Given the life she chose to live, I suppose that is not too surprising. But Pope Francis published her doubts. He didn’t hide them. And he wants to fast track her for Sainthood.
I not sure what the conclusion is here. But doubt is a serious part of faith. Whether we overcome our doubts isn’t as important as how we live. For me, I’ve come grips with my many doubts.