I Know the Church is True
Yesterday, I posted this to my Facebook wall:
Every time I hear someone say “I know the Church is true” my internal alarm goes off saying:
What do those words even mean? What is it you know? How do you know it? Why do you think you know it? Why is it people “know” the opposite of your truth is their truth? Can you “know” something falsely? What is the Church? How do you define it? Who gets to define the Church? What is true? What is “truth” for that matter? How do you know truth? Why does your “true knowledge” contradict another’s “true knowledge”? Is this claim coming from a place of epistemic arrogance that actually thwarts the pursuit of truth?
They say, “I know the Church is true,” but what does that even mean?
The following day, my friend Tarik, who I respect as a fellow philosopher, wrote a thoughtful response. I’d like to take a brief moment to respond to his post.
“What is it you know?”
Tarik suggests that when a person says, “I know the Church is true” they mean to convey “I believe the church is true.” In his words, “. . . the word knowledge and belief are interchangeable in Mormondom, though the term knowledge is usually used rather than belief.” While I agree with Tarik to a certain extent, I still take issue with this cultural, perhaps even dogmatic, use of the word knowledge when used interchangeably with belief. If the two words were meant to convey the same meaning as synonyms then we wouldn’t have an issue with semantics, but semantics matter. If you mean belief then say belief. If you mean knowledge then say knowledge. Using these words interchangeably feels dishonest.
For example, if I told my husband I was going out with my friend, but to his surprise my friend is actually my lover. I could explain to my husband, “Oh, but when I said friend I really meant lover.” I doubt he would be inclined to see my words as honest when friend and lover are not synonymous. Now you might be thinking, but what Blaire said was honest because her friend is also her lover, because lover is just a more specific type of friend. If that is the case, it seems honest and courteous to clarify that the type of friend I will be spending time with that evening is a friend who is also a lover, rather than just a friend.
The same holds for knowledge and belief. Perhaps it is the case that belief is a specific type of knowledge, but to avoid confusion it’s probably best to clarify what you mean.
“Why is it people ‘know’ the opposite of your truth is their truth?”
I appreciate Tarik’s epistemic humility in regard to whether or not “true knowledge” is possible. This is one area where we likely agree. To “know” something is certainly a complex question. This is also the case within religious knowledge.
For example, let’s say there are two tribes who live on opposite sides of a river. Tribe A sees the color blue and calls it red. Everyone agrees that they are seeing the same color and congratulate themselves of having “true knowledge” of the color red. Tribe B sees the color yellow and calls it red. Everyone agrees that they are seeing the same color and congratulate themselves of having “true knowledge” of the color red. Who has “true knowledge” of the color red? It might be easy to say neither, they are both wrong and I am right because I have true knowledge of the color red, but therein lies the problem. No one has “true knowledge” of red. We only tell each other stories with words we invent to identify the experience of seeing red.
Religion is similar. We tell each other stories with words we invent to explain our experiences with the Divine. These stories can be helpful, provoking, and inspiring, but that does not make them true. We like our tribes, because they often agree with us and give us confidence that we indeed have “true knowledge,” because everyone in my tribe agrees with me and God loves my tribe most. Another tribe could also claim “true knowledge” of the Divine which contradicts another tribe, but does that mean both are right, wrong, neither, or both? We can’t know with any certainty, but should, in my estimation, seek to know.
In short, I know my subjective experience, but epistemic arrogance would be to conflate my experience with universal truth or true knowledge. (See more here)
“Why do you think you know it?”
Tarik also suggests that when someone uses the words “I believe the church is true” they mean to convey “I think there is good reason to believe that the LDS Church, as compared to the other world religions, is the correct one.”
But the question remains, whether this is knowledge or belief, why do you believe this? Why is this the correct one, especially if you don’t know the other options? It reminds me of a testimony once shared in sacrament meeting to which a woman claimed she knew the Book of Mormon was true and didn’t even need to read it, because she felt its truth. I wonder if she considered that something can feel good, but also not be true. For example, my son loves Harry Potter and has good feelings when he reads the books and discusses them with his friends, but that doesn’t mean Hogwarts exists outside the world of fiction and imagination.
However, my philosophically creative friends might contend, “Well actually, Blaire, Hogwarts does exist, and you can even ride the attractions at Universal Studios. Not only that, all we have to do is create a Hogwarts school and enroll children. We can make Hogwarts true!” If that is the intended meaning of “I know the Church is true” then I agree and will work toward that endeavor with you, assuming we don’t engage in harmful or oppressive behaviors. However, “I know the Church is true” does not convey that meaning when it assumes we have already made the fictional become true. It’s one thing to hope it’s true and work towards that truth, but it's quite another to say it is true. (See more here)
“Can you know something falsely?”
I like Tarik’s analogy of Aristotle’s astronomy and agree with his justification. For practical purposes, I think it is important to acknowledge what we know can be proven false in the future. This is not to say we shouldn’t seek to know things, but to recognize that understanding truth is a dynamic endeavor which requires humility in admitting when we are wrong or incomplete.
“Who gets to define the Church?”
Tarik says, “. . . who gets to define the Church is a good question, but it has an obvious answer: The Church.” While I appreciate the simplicity and humor of this response, it’s an autological, circular definition. This still doesn’t get us any closer to parsing out what is the Church and what is not the Church. Thus, “who is the Church” is still not answered. I contend we can define “the Church” similarly to how other things are defined: by people.
Tarik asks, “Who gets to define Mormonism?” I like this question because it suggests he acknowledges there is a difference between the Church and Mormonism. While Tarik offers the response that nobody is defining the Church or Mormonism, I wouldn’t say “nobody” but rather “anybody” is defining the Church and Mormonism. We are defining Mormonism in a network of connections, power relations, propositions, policies, speculative theologies, and critiques. We are molding and shaping its ever-changing landscape of the Church and Mormonism as we embody continuing revelation. Some individuals may have more institutional power and authority, but neither Mormonism nor the Church exist in a vacuum. I agree with Tarik that “Mormonism is something lived” and thus, dynamic.
“What do those words even mean?”
This last point is the one that perplexes me the most. Tarik suggests that, “I know the Church is true” is similar to the statement “I love you,” based off the work of Adam Miller. I’m not entirely familiar with the work of Adam Miller, so I proceed with understanding that I could be interpreting this inaccurately.
The way I see it, if you say “I know the Church is true” across the pulpit, but you mean to convey “I love this Church, and I’m committed,” your message could be lost in translation when others are hearing “If you don’t know the Church is true too, you don’t belong here.”
“I know the Church is true” may be a simple catchphrase repeated in varies meetinghouses across the globe, and I accept that members are free to keep saying it, but I offer a caution if they are used in arrogance or function as a gatekeeper for who is a part of the community and who is not. If you mean “I love this church and I am deeply committed,” those words are far more powerful than “I know the Church is true.” In fact, if you say “I love this church and I am deeply committed,” I might even say them with you.
Thank you for your post, Tarik. It’s a pleasure to engage in dialectics with you.