Knowing God vs. believing ideas about Him

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This entry is part 5 of 17 in the series Who Is Truth?

When we view truth as a divine person instead of a set of abstract ideas, this also changes how we think about testimony. Our personal testimonies become centered on the Savior Jesus Christ, since He is the truth. From the person view of truth we “know” truth in the same way we might know a beloved friend. It is one thing to know about something, and quite another to know someone. A man knows his wife in a very different way than he knows the dates of the French Revolution.

In Spanish, for example, the words saber and conocer are both translated in English as the verb “to know,” but mean different things. We would use “saber” when we know something is the case. We would use “conocer” when we know a person. A story from an old LDS Young Women’s manual may illustrate the difference:

A man died and was resurrected and waiting in a room to be interviewed. Another man was ahead of him. The door opened, the man entered, and the door closed. The man on the outside could hear the conversation on the other side of the door. The interviewer began: “I want you to tell me what you know about Jesus Christ.”

“Well, He was born of Mary in Bethlehem; he lived thirty-three years, spending the last three organizing his church, choosing his Apostles, and giving the gospel to direct our lives.”

The interviewer stopped him and said: “Yes, yes, that’s all true, but I want you to tell me what you know about Jesus Christ.”

“Well, he suffered and died so that we could have eternal life. Three days later he was resurrected so that we might return to Heavenly Father.”

“Yes, yes, that is true, but I want you to tell me what you know about Jesus Christ.” The man, a little perplexed, again began: “Well, he restored the gospel in its fullness to the earth through Joseph Smith, reorganized his church, gave us temples so we could do work to save our dead. He gave us personal ordinances for our salvation and exaltation.”

The interviewer again stopped him and said, “All of what you have said to me is true.” The man was then invited to leave the room. After he left the door opened and the second man entered. As he approached the interviewer he fell upon his knees and cried, “My Lord, my God.”((Young Women Manual 3 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1994), 6-8.))

The first man in the story treated truth as a set of ideas (or doctrines). The second man, however, had spent His life developing a personal relationship with the truth. He could do far more than testify that He knows that Christ is real—he could claim to know Christ. From this perspective, when we bear witness of God, we do far more than list doctrines that we claim to know are true. We share experiences we have had with God. We bear witness of His hand in our lives, of His goodness to us, of His saving grace and transforming love.

We often talk about the Holy Ghost confirming to us that the doctrines of the Church are true. When we adopt a person view of truth, the Holy Ghost becomes more than a tutor who points us towards abstract truth. He represents and points us towards the divine personage of God. He serves as our Divine companion in lieu of God’s actual physical presence with us. Instead of saying, “The Holy Ghost has confirmed these doctrines to me,” we might say, “Through the Holy Ghost, I have come to know God.”

The distinction is important. When we seek a testimony, our goal is not to add to a list of doctrines that the Holy Ghost has told us are true. Rather, our goal is to develop a relationship with Divine persons.  Sometimes, we treat prayer like a Magic 8-Ball, where we ask abstract questions looking for “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” answers. From this view, we feel doubt when our specific questions do not find answers. But from a person view of truth, our hope is to encounter God’s hand in our lives, and to witness His grace working in our hearts and minds. Our prayers become less focused on confirming abstract doctrines, and more on inviting God into the details of our families and communities.

Faith and knowledge are not opposites

The idea view of truth separates faith from knowledge. Typically, “knowledge” is thought of as justified belief in “truth” (abstract ideas), while faith is seen as belief without justifying evidence. From this view, beliefs are only justified (that is, knowledge) when they are based repeated, systematic observations of the natural or the social world. For example, famous philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote, “Faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern. … However far you feel you have fled the parish … you are likely to be the product of a culture that has elevated belief, in the absence of evidence, to the highest place in the hierarchy of human virtues.”((Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2005), 65.))

The idea view of truth sometimes filters into how we make sense of our own faith. In fact, some Latter-day Saints argue that faith cannot exist without doubt. They reject the certainty with which many Latter-day Saints express their testimonies of the Restored Gospel. For example, one LDS online commenter (who goes by Brit) expressed this idea well: “Rather than doubt and faith being incompatible, I think that doubt is the required environment for faith to exist, for when there is no doubt (uncertainty), there is certainty (knowledge) and hence faith is no longer necessary.”((Brit, September 10, 2013 (3:50 pm), comment on J. Max Wilson, “Vectors – Faith and Doubt are Incompatible in the LDS Church,Sixteen Small Stones, September 3, 2013, Some LDS thinkers have begun to use similar logic to valorize doubt and skepticism as a prerequisite to genuine faith.

In contrast, the person-view of truth shifts our understanding of doubt. If we use marriage as our example, spouses are always and ever knowing each other better every day. But it would make little sense to say that each must question or doubt existence or faithfulness of the other in order to have faith in them, or to be truly faithful to them. A man’s fidelity to his wife, after all, is not justified by empirical evidence, but by his love for her and the commitments he has made with her. Similarly, our fidelity to God is not justified by rational inference or empirical evidence either. As C. S. Lewis taught:

To believe that God—at least this God—exists is to believe that you as a person now stand in the presence of God as a person. What would, a moment before, have been variations in opinion, now become variations in your personal attitude to a Person. You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence.((C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1960), 26.))

From the person view of truth, the opposite of faith is not knowledge, but being unfaithful. It is disloyalty, or breaking the promises we have made to God, giving ourselves over to other gods and other priorities. When Nephi invited his brothers to exercise faith, he said: “Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him” (1 Ne. 7:12). The invitation Nephi extends is not to mere belief, but to fidelity.

We justify our faithfulness through experience with God

James Faulconer noted, “In Hebrew, truth is understood to be ‘firmness, faithfulness, trust.’”((James Faulconer, “Truth, Virtue, and Perspectivism,” in Virtue and the Abundant Life (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2012), 85.)) According to Marvin Wilson, the ancient Hebrews knew “that God was always met in history, in the context of events, in the world of activity and doing. The person of faith was one who was so committed to God that, like Abraham, he ventured into the unknown with the full expectation that God would meet him there.”((Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 184.)) From this view, faith is not unjustified belief in a set of ideas, but a forward motion with full confidence that God will keep his promises. This helps us understand what Moroni meant when he said, “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6).

When we place our confidence in God, it is not a blind, unjustified confidence. Rather, it is a confidence born of experience. Prophets in scripture invite us to faithfulness by appealing to our memory. For example, Alma warned: “Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance [God’s] mercy and long-suffering towards them?” (Alma 5:6). Similarly, Captain Moroni asked: “Yea, have ye forgotten the captivity of our fathers? Have ye forgotten the many times we have been delivered out of the hands of our enemies?” (Alma 60:20). Nephi also posed the following questions to his brothers:

How is it that ye have not hearkened unto the word of the Lord? How is it that ye have forgotten that ye have seen an angel of the Lord? Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten what great things the Lord hath done for us, in delivering us out of the hands of Laban, and also that we should obtain the record? (1 Nephi 7:9-11)

This is why history was so important to the ancient Israelites—it was how they justified their confidence in God. Similarly, it is within our history of modern-day deliverances, miracles, and manifestations that we ground our loyalties to God. In addition, we have our own personal encounters with God that date from the moment we first started praying and experiencing God’s hand in our lives. We have the witnesses of our family, friends, neighbors, and prophets who have also felt the hand of God in their lives, who tell us that God deserves our confidence. Pressing forward with confidence in God is not an act of mere blind trust, nor is it without any viable or justificatory evidence.

It is in this light that we strive to be faithful to God—not because we know about Him (as in, we possess empirical or rational knowledge of His characteristics or existence), but rather because we know Him (as in, we have actual relational experience with Him, both personally and collectively), even if we do not yet know Him perfectly. Belief is certainly important, but the term “faith” connotes much more than simply belief. It is a lifestyle of fidelity to God, where we heed His voice and trust in His promises, as we patiently live out our own.

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