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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On "Know"ing

by Brother Jake (bio)

Personally, I think the word “know” is overused among Mormons when expressing spiritual conviction. In modern vocabulary, to say you know something carries certain connotations about the thing itself. In a scientific context specifically, knowledge of a fact means that the fact can be empirically proven and, to at least some degree, objectively observable. Spiritual knowledge fails on both criteria: faith building events, i.e. spiritual confirmations, take place in a subjective, unobservable realm—within the minds and hearts of the believer. That isn't to say the experience wasn't real or valid or based in something true. But when I say “I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God” and “I know the Pythagorean Theorem is true,” I’m really saying very different things, even though I used the same word to convey it.

Obviously, spiritual knowledge and scientific knowledge are completely different. I’m comparing apples and oranges here. But I think we in the Church may have a tendency to conflate the two when we talk about the acquisition of faith. Take, for example, Moroni 10:3-5, which Church members often look to as the jumping off point of a real-life testimony. As a missionary, I (and I wasn't the only one) treated the passage like it was a set of instructions for an experiment—2 parts sincerity, 3 parts faith, 1 part real intent, a few drops of the prayer enzyme, and ding! You can say “I know.”

What I’m getting at is that I think we often use the word “know” not necessarily because our experiences really classify as “knowledge” in the most common sense of the word, but because sounding really sure of ourselves is what all the cool people are doing. Consider these two statements:

1. “My name is Brother Jake, and I know the Church is true.”
2. “My name is Brother Jake, and I feel in my heart that the church is true.”

Now, according to the definitions of faith and spiritual knowledge in Alma 32 and Moroni 10, these statements are functionally equivalent. But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the vast majority of members prefer the first statement to the second, and not just because it’s more parsimonious. Let’s face it—it sounds way better to say a hard, sure statement than to say something that would imply any sort of doubt.

But even if, as I’m hypothesizing here, we are using the word “know” as a form of rhetorical inflation of certainty, what does it matter? As long as there is belief, what’s the big deal? Well, there are two main problems with it, in my opinion. First, I think it can undermine the importance of faith. Faith, and the lessons that faith can teach us, is absolutely central to our spiritual development. Faith cultivates trust as we as we act on something for which there is no discernible, objective proof. Faith fosters humility by forcing us to subject our personal priorities to those of something larger than ourselves. But if we see it as crutch or stepping stone until we can get to a “knowledge” level, like some sort of spiritual Charmeleon we hold onto while we wait for a Charizard, then I think we might be missing the point.

Second, I believe overuse of the word “know” implicitly stigmatizes not “knowing” and ostracizes people with doubts. The conflation of spiritual and objective knowledge cuts both ways. If people are told over and over that they can “experiment” and “know,” it builds an expectation that cultivating a testimony is like some sort of binary event. You follow the recipe and then you “know.” And if you complete the experiment without seeing the expected results, then you either wallow in self-doubt for not getting “the answer” so many others say they “know,” or you conclude that the (Church, Book of Mormon, etc.) is disproved and therefore without worth.

I’m not necessarily recommending that everyone stop using the word “know” in their assertions of belief. But I am arguing that we should be more thoughtful about the way we use the word and more specific about what it means in a spiritual context. Doubt and uncertainty aren't evil or bad or to be feared, and we shouldn't be so anxious to publicly declare that we have exorcised them from our hearts. They are the lifeblood of faith and spiritual growth, and there’s nothing implicitly noble or good about using language to imply that you’re free of them.

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