Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Certainty and Belief

In my ward, whenever the bishop calls young men or women to the pulpit for the purpose of presenting them for advancement in the Aaronic Priesthood or to a new Young Women class, he invites these kids to bear their testimonies. This is not a stakewide practice. I believe it was started by my current bishop’s predecessor but has, like so many Church practices, become a sort of tradition now. And it has caused me to ponder the place of testimony in Mormonism.
Whenever the bishop puts one of the young men or women on the spot like this, I can’t help but think about my own experience as a youth. If my bishop, all those years ago, had asked me to bear my testimony, I don’t know what I would have said. I suppose I could have recited the standard “I’d like to bear my testimony and I know the Church is true,” but I have always preferred honesty, and this statement would not have been honest. I didn’t know. So I’m glad my bishop didn’t ask.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that some of the youth in my ward know as little as I did. I’m guessing that they are probably as distracted as I was and haven’t really made a great effort to find out if the Church is true. It’s possible they are merely relying on the testimonies of others—parents, teachers, older siblings, friends. I don’t know if any of them see an ethical dilemma in saying something that isn’t quite true. If so, I feel for them. But what do you do when you’re put on the spot like that?
As I have chronicled elsewhere (my 2007 Dialogue essay “Frau RĂ¼ster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance”), I went to Germany as a missionary without a testimony. After praying futilely for two months in the LTM (they told me this stood for Longest Two Months), I continued my struggle for a month and a half in Germany before receiving a rather remarkable spiritual confirmation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. But as I have learned more about Mormonism and some of the difficult questions it really does not answer very well, the scope of that spiritual witness has narrowed a good deal. In essence, the more I learn, the less I know—or perhaps I should say, the less I am certain of. As a missionary, I assumed that if Joseph Smith really did see what he said he saw, then everything else about Mormonism had to be true. But today I know enough about LDS doctrine, history, institutional practice, and culture to be quite uncertain about an increasing slice of the Mormon pie. Awareness of inconsistencies tends to produce uncertainty.
But certainty is the coin Mormonism traffics in. Testimony is the most important possession a Mormon can acquire. In order to receive a temple recommend, for instance, you have to have a testimony of some fundamental notions. Certainty is certainly more important than belief in Mormondom. But in recent years, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of this particular priority. I don’t mean to be critical, but it seems to me that many Mormons are certain the Church is true and yet are not certain about what, specifically, they believe, especially if you ask them.
Let me be both blunt and personal. I don’t believe a lot of the things I did ten years ago. Why? Because I have learned a great deal about my religion and life generally in those ten years. And the more you learn, the more your beliefs evolve. It is inevitable. If you believe the same things you believed ten years ago, I would suggest that you haven’t really learned anything. New knowledge always causes a person to reassess his or her beliefs. The more knowledge you have, the broader your perspective is, and the more clearly you see contexts and relationships between truth and error.
Let me give a simple example to illustrate. In the past ten years, I have studied a good deal of Church history. I have seen instances of promises given by prophets in the name of the Lord that simply did not come to pass. So the question naturally arises, If a prophet was wrong about, say, the timing of the Second Coming, what else might he have been wrong about? And if one prophet was wrong about something significant, well, what about the other prophets? What about those declarations about the status of blacks in the premortal existence? Given the track record of fallibility, how certain can I be about declarations I hear from authority figures?
Because of numerous inconsistencies I am finding in Mormonism, because of the doctrinal shifts that have occurred over the years, and because of my increasing uncertainty, I have started examining my own beliefs, in serious detail. I find this a useful thing to do. How many Mormons, I wonder, have actually composed a personal document examining their beliefs in specifics, giving cogent arguments for why they believe what they do? What I am finding, so far, is that Joseph Smith produced some very appealing and sensible doctrines. But he was not consistent. He sometimes contradicted himself. Some of the doctrines, when viewed in light of other doctrines, don’t add up, so to speak. Other doctrines are inconsistent with themselves when viewed over time. So I am sorting through various fundamental tenets and asking myself what actually makes sense. In some ways, I am arriving at conclusions that surprise me. But I find this exercise to be highly beneficial, because it clarifies for me what I do believe and what I don’t, what makes sense and what doesn’t. Am I certain about these beliefs? Certainly not. I am not convinced that my beliefs will not continue to evolve as I learn more and obtain better information.
Let me now return to my bishop. I wish he would stop asking the kids to bear their testimonies. I wish instead that he would warn the young men and women in his interviews with them that he is going to ask them, when he presents them to the ward, to talk about something they believe. He should then invite them to examine their beliefs and select something they would feel comfortable sharing with the ward. I would find that much more useful than placing these kids in a tight spot where they feel pressured to offer up a trite assurance that they know something that maybe they do know but maybe they don’t. I would much rather hear what a fourteen-year-old believes than hear her simply state that she knows the Church is true. If she is asked to talk about something she believes, she will have to think about what she believes, and she might actually say something really important, to herself and to the congregation.


  1. I carry spiritual scars from just the sort of practice your Bishop is engaging in. We do no favors when we do not allow room for doubt. In fact, would Joseph Smith have prayed in the woods as he did if his family had not allowed his doubts space to be heard? I don't think so.

  2. Have you read the book The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns? If not, I think you would like it.

  3. You have reflected a lot of my sentiments. I have been trying to look in from outside the fishbowl, as it were, for the last five or six years and have come to similar conclusions. I think the emphasis on certainty, as you stated, stifles questions and the growth and spiritual maturation that can come from asking those questions.
    When I started down this path I promised myself that I wouldn't allow myself to simply trade one black and white set of ideas for another black and white set of ideas. This has caused me to come to some complex, if not blurry, ideas.
    So, was Joseph Smith (and other church leaders) called of God? Maybe. Does that mean everything they claim(ed) while in that capacity God's word? My internal moral compass (and history) tells me no.
    It's a lot of work to walk the uncertain path and there are many reasons to avoid it so we end up taking the easy path (tradition, etc.) and simply assume it's the best route.
    I agree with your idea to talk with the youth ahead of time. Give them a chance to actually evaluate their beliefs and you will more likely than not be impressed. No one benefits from simply falling into the rote of things.