(This is part 2 of a two-part post. You can find part 1 here. – Ed.)
I’m going to say flat out that I think the culture of “knowing” is damaging to a lot of members of the Church and almost certainly contributes to the all-or-nothing attitude that pushes people on the fringes away. The Church very often feels like a club for “women [and men] who know,” and going to Church without that certainty can feel like showing up to a Michelin starred restaurant in sweatpants. The thing is, knowledge leaves no room to manoeuvre, it is restrictive, a line that once crossed changes one’s reality. You know or you don’t know, and if you don’t know then it’s either because there is something wrong with you (see above), or because it’s simply not true. If you fulfilled all the pre-conditions necessary for an answer and still didn’t get one, those are the only reasonable conclusions (we tell people to keep asking until they get the right answer, all the while acknowledging in our own scripture that that’s not really how God works).
A good illustration of how we use “know” in the Church versus how we use “believe” can be found with a quick search of both words over on LDS.org. When you search “believe,” most of the references you see are either scriptural or general use of the word to describe the tenets of the Church (e.g., “what we believe,” “we believe in Christ,” “what do Mormons believe?”). On the other hand, searching for the word “know” reveals talks with titles like, “No Greater Joy Than to Know That They Know,” “I Know These Things of Myself,” “I Know It. I Live It. I Love It.,” “Ye May Know,” and “You, Too, Must Know,” to select just a few of the many. I get that this a) isn’t exactly scientific research, and b) you’d expect the language in Conference to be a little bit more on the side of absolute knowledge. On the other hand, the language we use in daily Mormon parlance filters down to us through church leaders, especially through conference talks, and those talks set the tone for how our very centralized religion expresses its faith. Besides that, I can really only speak to my life growing up in the Church and as an adult and what I’ve observed, and I accept that much of what I’m saying here is colored by my own perceptions and my anecdotal experience. However, I’d venture to say that both those perceptions and those experiences are shared fairly widely by members of the Church. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen at your next fast and testimony meeting to see how many small children use any other word but “know,” often directed by well-meaning parents.
There’s nothing wrong with knowing the Church is true, or thinking you know the Church is true. The problem is that if you don’t know, it feels deeply uncomfortable to say so because it’s almost like admitting you don’t have a testimony at all. I would hazard that many, if not most, Mormons, when bearing testimony in class or at the pulpit or anywhere else, say “know” when what they really mean is “believe” or even “hope.” Many people say “know” hoping that if they say it enough times it will be true. But to not say “know” is to admit either personal failure or to cast doubt on the truth of Church. At least, that’s how it has struck me since I switched camps.
The real question, of course, is “Does it matter? Aren’t you being a little pedantic arguing about which words people use to describe their feeling of faith in the Gospel?” Maybe I am, and maybe it’s all semantics, but I’m one of those people who continues, somewhat futilely, to believe that words have inherent meaning and power, and the word “know” has deeply affected the LDS community’s sense of belief and faith. It is understandable, of course, that a people who are making as bold (and some would say extreme) a claim as we do, to be the only true church, the vessel for Christian salvation, should be pretty damn sure that they are hitching themselves to the right wagon. Besides that, a major theme of the Book of Mormon, especially the dog-eared pages of Alma 32, is the transition from that first seed of faith to the outright knowledge of the truth of the Gospel. Our culture is steeped in the importance of knowledge, and knowledge as the end goal of our faith journey. We took it from the Book of Mormon and we made it the key word in our common church lexicon, a universally accepted touchstone concept. And it matters.
It matters because of, as I mentioned above, the impact it has on people who can’t use the word “know” without feeling hollow or hypocritical. It matters because people are pushed to “know” so hard that we often miss the steps that it takes to actually get there and we miss opportunities to better understand the Gospel because of it. It matters because when everyone “knows” but you, you feel out of place and lesser, and that lack of knowledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the echo of that word fills your ears until it’s all you can hear. If you’re someone who “knows” the Church is true, this might seem overblown and melodramatic, but for those of us who have had to go to church feeling like the only person in the room who hadn’t had a member of the Godhood personally confirm that they’re in the right place, I can promise you that it’s not. I can remember very clearly how hard it was to bear testimony at the end of a Sunday School or Priesthood lesson for a couple of years, because it felt so awkward to say anything but “I know these things are true,” but it also felt hypocritical to say that I did when my insides were crawling with doubts.
Emphasis on knowledge shortchanges the process of getting there, or at least it has the potential to do so. You don’t have to “know” the Church is true when you’re four years old and your parents are whispering that word into your ear, when you’re eight years old and getting baptized, when you’re walking into the MTC, when you’re kneeling at the altar in the temple, when you’re baptizing your own kids or, hell, even when you’re called to be bishop. It’s okay to still be nurturing that seed of faith and hope and trying to see what you can get it to blossom into. It’s okay to pray daily for a better knowledge, a stronger faith, and a more perfect brightness of hope and to accept that it may take you your entire life to get there. Maybe you never will. True “knowledge” of the veracity of the Gospel may be an unachievable goal in this life for many of us, maybe the vast majority of us, and that’s part of the point of being here in the first place. To hear a twenty-something year old (or much younger) announce with unfeigned confidence that they know with every fiber of their being that the Church is true makes the whole idea of “knowledge” of the Gospel seem almost cheap, once that statement is placed under real examination. In our church, it never will be. Maybe they do know, and I’m simply being cynical and dismissive. I don’t mean to be. People do know, and believing you know is, for all intents and purposes, probably the same as actually knowing. In any case, belief stated as knowledge doesn’t diminish the belief, or invalidate it in any way, and I don’t mean to do either of those things to those who express their sincere testimony in words that hypercritical cranks like me insist on dissecting and parsing to satisfy our own constant self-inquisition.
For the vast majority of us that merely hope and believe, including the many who use “know” when they really mean “believe,” it should be a relief that we are not burdened with the overwhelming responsibility of a perfect knowledge or testimony. Knowledge can be fragile, a ship that breaks its bow on the first iceberg of doubt or self-awareness. Knowledge, real or perceived, has not, in my experience, kept a lot of people from leaving the Church the first time that knowledge was contradicted by some new piece of Church history or unconsidered misgiving (more on the former in another post). Going back to the Book of Mormon, no one could possibly have “known” that God was real and exactly what he wanted of them than Laman and Lemuel, to cite just two of many examples from that book. The knowledge they had, stripped as it was of hope, of faith, of charity, of understanding sincerely sought, was a tool they never knew how to use.
Hope gives us room to fall, room to doubt, room to fail. Hope allows someone like me, who can stare up into the godless blackness at one moment and then fall on his knees in prayer the next, to continue to strive toward a better understanding of Christ and the Atonement. Losing what I thought was my knowledge of the truth of the Church nearly destroyed me because I had been living in a black and white world where knowledge was the only option. It took a great deal of soul-searching and struggle, and the personal decision to keep trying, to come to the conclusion that it was okay not to know and that one verse in Moroni was not the only acceptable way to have a testimony of the Book of Mormon or the truthfulness of the Gospel.
I don’t think that we as an LDS culture are going to be moving on from the emphasis on knowledge anytime soon. I think it’s too deeply embedded in the way we think of our faith and in the average LDS person’s concept of self. But having seen so many friends leave the Church because of their doubts rather than fighting through them to find the kernels of truth beyond some of the frustrations and confusions of being Mormon, I think it would be immensely helpful to make sure that those people know that doubting is not a personal failure. It’s not a negation of their faith. The alternative to the Church being big “t” TRUE is not the Church being big “f” FALSE. Christ did not recruit his apostles from among the already converted, but instead he found men who were willing to go through the process of confronting their doubts until they understood the nature of their Savior. Considering how long it took Peter and company to get there, despite learning at the feet of Christ himself and witnessing countless miracles, it seems only fair that the rest of us should give ourselves more time, too.