Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"The Church is True"--A Solid Position

Each first Sunday of the month these words can be heard echoing through microphones in LDS Church buildings throughout the world, "I know the Church is true."

Recent comments on my last post have prompted me to do some thinking on these words. In the past I have felt that these words are too broad and ambiguous to be useful. How can one "know" something that relies on matters of faith? Wouldn't it be better, as Rich suggested, to use the words "I feel," or "I believe," or even "I testify?" Wouldn't "I know" have to be reserved for cases when one has actually touched the wounds in Jesus hands and feet and side, or when a conversation with God has taken place wherein he has told the seeker that he chose Joseph Smith to restore his Church to the earth? What is "the Church?" Isn't it an imperfect, changing, adapting institution that seeks to implement Gospel truths? And what does "true" mean, anyway?

A few statements from fellow Latter-Day Saints have helped me to understand why they feel justified in using the words "I know the Church is true." Linda Hoffman Kimball said:

I understand the need for using the word "know." For me the restored Gospel, the authority and ordinances of the Priesthood, the divine guidance of this Church are the truest things I know. My conviction about these things is the standard by which I measure all other things claiming to be "true" or for anything else I say I "know." To use another verb might lessen the impact, the authority, the imperative this personal revelation has for me. I know what I mean when I say I know, but I'm less certain what others mean when they say it.

Another reason I think Church members use the word "know" is to underscore the exclusivity of the truth claims of Mormondom. This is a touchy subject in our modern culture. When most people want to hear "If it works for you, then God bless," Mormons unabashedly declare that Jesus Christ is the only Way, the Truth, and the Life; that angels came again; that ancient translated books bear witness of Christ; that ordinances essential to spiritual progress are necessary for everyone and available to them now or in the eternities. Some Mormon folk may think that to say "I believe" sounds too much like the broader cultural norm of "my truth is as good/valid/right as your truth."

Bookslinger said:
I can also honestly and boldly state that I know some things are true, because the Holy Ghost caused me to know. He not only told me, but he transfered in, or poured in that knowledge to me. Even more descriptive, he burned that knowledge into me, like page 38 of Gospel Principles, Chapter 7:

The convincing power of the Holy Ghost is so great that there can be no doubt that what he reveals to us is true. President Joseph Fielding Smith said:

“When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase” (Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151).

President Smith also said, “Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fibre and sinews of the body so that it cannot be forgotten” (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:48).

Yes, I could say I believe or I feel. That would be true. But the "whole truth" goes beyond that. To tell the whole truth, I have to say "I know" that a) God the father lives, b) Jesus the son of God, lives and is the Savior, c) the Book of Mormon is true (ie Jesus really visited the Nephites, etc), and d) Joseph Smith's first vision really happened.

I think that when they assert that "I know the Church is true," many Mormons are coming from the position that the claims made by the Church are authentic and conforming to reality. This would mean that, among other claims, Joseph Smith had a genuine encounter with a physical God, and that he translated an ancient record that was tangible. These are the types of things they wish to communicate in their testimonies.

In his recent talk at BYU-H, Elder Ballard said, "Our position is solid; the Church is true." I am interested in the solidity of my readers' positions--do you frame your testimony with the words, "I know the Church is true?" What does this mean to you? How is your "knowledge" different than belief?


Zillah said...

I think that one of the core difficulties underlying the problem you present is the way in which we define and understand "knowledge". Knowing something is equated with reason and physical, factual proof. While faith and reason do not have to be mutually exclusive at all times, there is a point where they diverge.

Augustine develops a theory that there are ultimately two different ways to know something: we arrive at a knowledge of something through the exercise of our rational faculties, but we also arrive at a firm knowledge of something through the illumination provided by God's grace. It takes faith to accept that knowledge, and it takes faith to continue in that knowledge, but, nonetheless, it is still a knowledge which is ontologically different from that which is achieved by reason.

In other words, I believe that a knowledge of things which are non-physical, perhaps non-rational, and unseen, can be just as firm and concrete a knowledge--if not more so--than a knowledge of something as achieved solely by the exercise of our limited reason.

Geoff J said...

I actually posted on this subject of what I know and don't know some time ago. (Seems like a long time ago now). See here:

Geoff J said...

Let's try that link again. See here

Rich said...

When I hear people say "I know such-and-such, because God told me it was true!", I find myself wondering what that means. He spoke audibly to you? You had a burning in your bosom? You had a good feeling? A feeling of peace and serenity? An epiphany? A warm fuzzy? These are all very subjective experiences. Is what is true for you also true for me too? Obviously not always! Two people can sit in the same Sacrament meeting, one can "feel the spirit", the other feels nothing. Was The Spirit there? Depends on if you encountered it or not. For one it was, for the other it wasn't. So if someone says "the church is true", it is a personal declaration, nothing more. It's only true for you. And others who have had a similar subjective experience. The danger of course is that this all too often forms a base in our church from which we begin to judge others. If I feel the spirit, "know" the church is true (whatever that means), etc., and you don't, well, what's wrong with you, brother? You must be wicked! You must be a sinner! You must have some repenting to do! Yes, that must be it! You aren't praying hard enough, must not be paying your tithing, having family prayer, reading scriptures, or following the prophet! Etc.

I'm uncomfortable with Zillah's use of the expression "limited reason", as if reason is somehow inferior to whatever the opposite of reason is (subjective grace-infused illumination, or...?). Reason, to the degree we humans possess reason, is what separates us from earthworms and anchovies, not to mention our superstitious tribal ancestors.

And how is it that my Protestant friend can "know" that his [view of]Jesus is superior to my Jesus? How is it that my Muslim friend can "know" that Allah is the only true God? He knows it as much as my fellow "I know!"-declaring ward members. My neighbor down the street "knows" that George Bush is inspired by God to lead our country, and that we therefore have no business criticizing his decision to lead us to War in Iraq. Once upon a time Bruce McConkie "knew" the blacks would never hold the Priesthood in this life. Boyd K. Packer "knows" that his ancestors were not related to monkeys, etc.

For 1500 years, "the church" KNEW that the earth was the center of the universe -- hey, all one had to do was watch the stars and sun and moon rise and set every night to have that "knowledge" confirmed. And when Kepler and Galileo suggested otherwise, the strongest reactions came from the clergy and their fellow "believers" who "knew" better.

Bookslinger said...

Rich: "When I hear people say "I know such-and-such, because God told me it was true!", I find myself wondering what that means."

I can only echo and confirm what the scriptures and modern day prophets have said. If you've been around long enough in the church, then you are aware of, or should be aware of, what the scriptures and the prophets teach.

If you haven't experienced knowing by the power of the Holy Ghost, then you must have tremendous faith to remain a member of the church.

I would never have joined had I not received a powerful Spirit-borne testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and the divine nature of the Book of Mormon.

Even before investigating I had a powerful Spirit-borne testimony of the existance of God and Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament is not too clear on how the Holy Ghost operates, but it's in there. The New Testament is accurate, but can be fuzzy in regards to revelation by the Holy Ghost. Centuries of interpretations and drifting cultural usage of words have watered down the power and accuracy of what the ancient prophets wrote.

The Book of Mormon is pretty clear. And the Doctrine and Covenants is very clear about how the Holy Ghost operates. And in the "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith" he nails it.

There are many ways that the Holy Ghost operates. I've personally observed/experienced several. You mentioned several.

I sense a frustration in your last comment. You seem to be implying that the church's teachings on how to gain an "I know" kind of testimony haven't worked for you. Not everyone is given the gift of knowledge. Some people are given the gift of believing on others' words. Some people are given the gift of faith.

Faith is not a bad thing. I believe that someone who obeys out of faith in God, Jesus and the plan of salvation, will receive a bigger reward than someone who obeys because they know that God lives and the gospel to be true.

The person who knows is under greater obligation. It's implied in the scripture that says that he who sins against the greater light is under greater condemnation, and the one that says where much is given, much is expected.

Zillah said...


"I'm uncomfortable with Zillah's use of the expression "limited reason", as if reason is somehow inferior to whatever the opposite of reason is (subjective grace-infused illumination, or...?). Reason, to the degree we humans possess reason, is what separates us from earthworms and anchovies, not to mention our superstitious tribal ancestors."

I see your objection, so let me explain myself a little better. I believe in reason, to the extent, as you say, that we possess it. But does not our reason have its limitations, stemming even solely from our temporally bound existence? If our reason were not limited, then scientific theories would not be constantly formed, proved, revised, rejected, reformed, and so on and so forth (before anyone can raise the cry, I am NOT saying anything about evolution, which I believe in). I suppose I would say that reason has its sphere, and the knowledge associated with faith has its sphere. I wouldn't want my heart surgeon to be going ahead with surgery solely on faith, yet even Aquinas admitted that he could not logically prove the existence of God. I also believe that faith can inform reason, and reason can inform faith.

This is getting long, but in response to your last paragraph, I suppose I would say that just because somebody says that they know does not mean that whatever they know is true. Plato and the leaders of the Catholic Church "knew" that the earth was the center of the universe, but obviously their knowledge claim was incorrect. As for religious examples, who am I to say that a Baptist or a Muslim does not know that God exists? As Biv highlights, though, when it comes to declaring knowledge that a particular religious organization is the church of God on the earth at this time, I suppose that's where one must take a stand, either due to firm affirmation through grace, or through a will to believe and to have faith.

Sorry for the muddle--it's late.

Zillah said...


I don't think that there is a qualitative difference between "knowing" and "believing", whatever those terms insinuate. Some people may feel that they have received firm knowledge, and some may feel that they have not. Does it matter? I don't think so. I do think that both a will to believe and a feeling of sure knowledge require faith, however.

Rich said...

I guess what I was getting at was the difference between objective truths vs subjective truths.

If I say that I know that Natalie Portman is the cutest actress in Hollywood, you very well might tell me, "No, she isn't! Kate Beckinsale is!". You might say "I know my mom's spaghetti recipe is the best" and I would answer, "you've never tried mine", etc.

I know one thing, you know another. We are both right, and yet this "knowing" is subjective. It isn't the same as objective knowledge, eg., 2+2=4 (in base-10 integer arithmetic) that doesn't vary from person to person or experience to experience.

I have felt the Spirit. I've had prayers answered. I've felt the promptings of the H. G. But they are MY experiences, they are sacred to me, and I have no right to impose their reality on anyone else. They are real and true for me, but may not be for anyone else. The gospel of Jesus Christ can indeed be "true" for me, but when I declare that I know it, that essentially says to everyone else, "if you don't know it, or you know something else, you are wrong." You KNOW God lives -- my atheist friend KNOWS he doesn't; all your insisting he's wrong/misled/wicked to the contrary will not change his mind, nor will he change yours (unless of course God changes the subjective to the objective and appears to you both simultaneously and makes a conclusive, unambiguous demonstration that he indeed is God and he indeed is real!).

I feel this is one of the reasons we have so many conflicts, wars, and contention in the world today.

Sorry if you disagree. I just think we overuse and misuse the term "know" in this subjective realm called religion.

"And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things"
(Alma 32:21)

Zillah said...

I agree with everything you say. I think that the verb "to know" is vastly overused within the realm of religion and without (example: my friend knows that I hate meatloaf, and yet at the same time "knows" that I will love her mother's, which I also hate), and very rarely correlates with any firm, irrefutable knowledge.

In other words: I believe that we rarely know something "for sure". I believe that there are very few objective truths. I believe that any firm knowledge that we have regarding religious truths can only come to us through grace, but that most of us live in faith, which is not a sure knowledge, though it can support the limited sure knowledge that we might have (I don't think that this last description of knowledge is an oxymoron).

I should have just said all of that before. I think I'm just getting confusing/confused.

SilverRain said...

I wrote some fairly extensive posts on faith and knowledge. I'd be interested if all of you would let me know what you think about those thoughts.

I think the problem is not in knowing something, it's in assuming that because someone else does not know it, or knows it differently, they are somehow less than you. The problem is in the comparison. Know what you know, and let other people know what they know. In the end, you are only responsible for your own knowledge. You won't have to report on anyone else's.

Anonymous said...

Nothing speaks doubt more clearly then a claim to 'know' a subjective truth. Spiritual truth should be taken with some caution since it seems to tell different people different things. It is pure arrogance to believe 'you' have the 'true' spirit while the majority of other spiritual people are wrong.

I am happy with those who state a belief. I know they are being honest with themselves and with those they are speaking to. Their minds are still open to learning, and even open to changing when needed.

This recent push to 'know', especially when pushed on the young who cannot know is a sad state bordering on abuse. It shows a sorry state of institutional insecurity.

HolyInheritance said...

Knowingness is certainty.

I can be CERTAIN through my faith.

I've just found your blog! I love it and have added it to my links on my blog

You are welcome to add mine to your links! Thanks & God Bless!!!

Bookslinger said...

"But they are MY experiences, they are sacred to me, and I have no right to impose their reality on anyone else. "

You have a right to _choose_ not to share.

But bearing testimony of what you know by the Spirit ("even though" they are personal experiences) is not imposing anything on anyone. That is a false notion that a secular anti-religious western culture is trying to impose on believers of all religions.

To many good people of all faiths have basically surrendered to this secular theory that mere talk of religion constitutes an imposition or "forcing."


Nor does use of the word "know" instead of "believe" constitute any imposition, forcing, or cramming.

If you do indeed know, (or even believe you know) by whatever mechanism (answers to prayers, spiritual manifestions, whisperings of the Spirit, or even the Holy Ghost falling upon you), then you have a right to verbalize that to anyone willing to listen.

As soon as someone tells you to "stop" (assuming you both are in a place and time where the other person has legitimate control over that physical space), then sure, stop and don't be overbearing.

But to speak first, or to speak to someone willing to listen is not to impose or "force your religion" or "cram it down their throat", as so many anti-religious people are wont to accuse.

This anti-religious ferver among secularists seems to be to be pretty much a western culture thing. The hundreds (literally hundreds) of Hindus and Muslims that I've encountered have never indicated that a mere offer of free LDS material is any imposition or forcing. It is only westerners, and only irreligious ones at that, who claim they are being imposed upon.

That is why I don't approach Caucasian-Americans without some sort of spiritual prompting to do so.

J G-W said...

I don't like using the term "I know" as a way of lording it over other Christians who use softer terms like "I believe" to discuss their faith. I don't like using the term "I know" to strong-arm someone else to see things my way.

I am also comfortable saying "I believe."

Yet, my knowledge comes from profound, replicable personal experience. I practice a principle, I find that principle works, it opens me to new knowledge, it brings me profound joy. This process is as real as any kind of scientific knowing. So saying "I know" is the best, most accurate description of how I experience my faith.