On Knowing: Hearts, Children, Souls

Cambridge First Ward, ca 2003

We live in a city where knowledge is an industry. We are surrounded by universities, programs, companies, politicians, consortiums, and foundations that place knowledge at an amazing premium. Many of us participate in these organizations where we acquire, study, decipher, digest, and transfer knowledge. The rest of us have to hear about them as if we live in the outer darkness of ignorance.

Independent of this, all of us are touched by knowledge and its possession on a regular basis. Does she love me? Do I like him? Who was Jesus, anyway? Am I truly that ugly? Will Bo stay with Hope? Does J. Lo really love Ben? Does house paint count as a tax deduction? Is it okay to feed my daughter corn flakes? Can I resuscitate this man? How much torque can this truss withstand? Does rattlesnake really taste like chicken? Am I saved? These questions and their cousins fill our lives daily with the need for answers, for ready access to knowledge.

On a spiritual plane, every Sunday we gather to discuss the things we know, to explore them and confirm them, to define and energize ourselves through our common access to the knowledge we call the Gospel, questions much more urgent than most of those I just posed.

I’d like to take some time to wonder with you what we mean by knowledge or what I will take as its synonyms, truth and testimony. Philosophers will chastise me for my informal approach. I am not trying to present an epistemology, a formal theory of knowledge. Instead I’d like to meander through the topic in a personal way in the hopes that the journey will be illuminating for some of us.

There are a variety of definitions of knowledge, particularly as it relates to religious and spiritual life, which will be my focus today. Some ancient Christians used a term that continues in currency to this day: credo, a term known also in its variant form “creed.” Meaning “I believe,” it comes from the same root as “cardiac.” In something of an etymological stretch that makes intuitive sense, knowledge is what we can give our hearts to.

In Mormonism we utilize the term “testimony.” This is a word we’ve inherited from the Latin with a curious twist, one that served as the pretext for jokes in many classical writers. The term comes from the root for the male gonad, and the linguists I’ve talked to claim that this arises from the fact that in Hebrew culture a testimony was sealed by grasping the loins, the organ from which the eternal fruit would spring. The people testifying thus staked their future offspring on the reliability of their word. With some etymological license, knowledge is what we would give our children to.

For a subset of ancient Christians, knowledge was gnosis, the Greek word for knowledge, from which the Gnostics take their name. For them, “gnosis” was meant to describe sacred understandings and secret rituals that would elevate a Christian from mere mortal life to direct communication with God, existence in an elevated sphere. The Gnostics would likely have felt at home in our temples, though they were rejected as heretics by the established church that became Christianity as we know it. In this sense, knowledge is the mystery we’re willing to give our souls to.

Hearts, children, souls. These are the emblems, even the currency, of knowledge. And spiritually they are the fruits of knowledge. This is the knowledge, the truth that we choose and that transforms us in the choosing.

To clarify what I mean by knowledge in this sense, I’d like to turn to the habitat of knowledge, realizing as we do that ecology has a powerful effect on a given instance of knowing.

The first habitat is literature. Truth in fiction I see as the transformative moment that happens when we are reading what becomes a watershed book. In such a work, the author illuminates for us vital issues with such clarity that we feel we have arrived on a higher level, that we have been transported beyond our mundane lives. I have felt that way in the Chief Inquisitor fable within the Brothers Karamazov, the discussion of Kitti and Levin’s love in Anna Karenina, the sensuous depiction of childhood in Nabokov’s luminous autobiography, the stark wisdom of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Each of you will have a different list, appropriately. Some of you will be deeply moved by works I consider anathema, such as the writings of Ayn Rand. For those of us who have found such knowledge, we will all understand the experience, the sensation of discovery, even if we cannot agree about conclusions. We may not even agree with ourselves. We may find as we navigate through life that what once moved us no longer has that power. I think particularly of my response to Hermann Hesse, an author whom I considered a seer when I was eighteen, and whose work I can no longer read without some impatience. But I remember that moment of knowing when I read the Glass Bead Game.

Nature is both a literal and figurative habitat for truth. Some of these truths are the dizzying grandeur of mountain summits, strenuously obtained vistas that vouchsafe me a vision of a vast portion of God’s creation. Other truths come from the sensation of tree bark and sap on my fingertips, of the forest duff on my feet. The cool envelopment of my feet, toes first, by stream water. Each of these sensuous experiences meets something deep inside me, and I find myself immersed again in knowledge, filled by an ineffable sense of wonder and gratitude. At times the vast wildness of a craggy alpine summit speaks to the limitlessness of existence. At other times the intimate intricacy of a leaf’s veins testifies of the all-encompassing attention of the Creator. Each instance awakens in me an awareness of something larger, grander, that turns my attention outward.

The next I’ll call truth in science. The spine-tingling beauty of the protein alphabet that encodes our physical blueprints, the dizzying scope of quantum mechanics, uncertainty, and string theory. The theory of celestial ethers, so gorgeous and now so outmoded. In my branch of science particularly, truths of two weeks ago are almost obsolete. But the sense of God’s fingerprint in the natural world we’re explaining and exploring is the permanent truth. It is our choice to find God in the nooks, crannies, and niches of science that enriches our lives, that provides the celestial community that can endure even seismic shifts in the landscape of science. It is the same power that can provide strength at times when science, in the form of disease and physical suffering, seems poised to annihilate us. This is where I see it the most, sitting as I often do beside the deathbed of a terminally patient, sharing the scientific knowledge that the vast majority of similar patients die soon.

There is also truth in scripture. The literalists will protest that the phrase is a meaningless tautology, that all scripture is true, by definition. We have long maintained that there are misapprehensions in current versions of scripture, that we may have to hunt, as Joseph Smith did, for the original intent of the original prophets. There are of course scriptures we believe are literally true, as in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. But that’s not the sense I mean. I mean finding something that elevates our understanding, something that overwhelms us or enlightens us, a connection with the divine. For Joseph Smith, it appears to have been the promise of James the apostle that those who seek shall find. For me it was Alma 36, where Alma recounts his painful theophany and conversion. There are other types of truth in scripture. Some are reassured by their literal inerrancy, an approach I’d like to consider in a moment. Others seek the truth of scripture, evidence that scriptures are what they claim to be. This group, the spiritual heirs of Hugh Nibley, most notably those who work with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, go to work excavating from scripture both Mormon and non- the facts that will demonstrate conclusively that we are correct. I have at times been giddy at the parallels between ancient Semitic poetry and the Book of Mormon, tasting the universality of thought and form, the omnipresent hand of God in human experience.

There is finally what I will term truth in dogma. A simple summary might be: a prophet has said it, so it’s true. Though even this formulation needs to be whittled down. The current prophet, speaking officially, with the support of the Quorum, is the font of truth. This knowledge can provide a buffer against the painful trials of mortality. In this respect it is the tangible proximity of the truth of scripture. This truth can be a force for good, but I believe it does so primarily by emphasizing the connection, the heavenly news of God’s close communion. Assertions, doctrines, and theologies removed from that moment of communion can cause inflexibility and strife.

Let me share some examples. When we lived in Russia, we attended a small urban branch in which we observed retired missionaries struggling to impose orthodoxy by stipulating that in the afterlife we would travel by spirit thought rather than teleportation as one of the Russian converts hoped. Another reprimanded the elders’ quorum because members of the congregation were taking the sacrament with their left hands. These well-meaning dogmatists created ill will that weakened the resolve of local members. I have a cousin who was a hyper-orthodox member of a bishopric in Utah, who, when he was struck by depression, removed himself from the church. The scattered bits of offense, the areas of historical murkiness that he found were sufficient to undermine the ultimately fragile infrastructure of dogma. I believe this happened in part because truth in dogma is the most vulnerable to criticism, paradoxically. If one small prophecy, one irrelevant pronouncement is proved wrong, the whole system collapses. An unfulfilled prophecy, a delay in the Second Coming, a prophet reversing the position of his predecessor, all can and have led to apostasy from the Church.

Elder Bruce McConkie is a fascinating example for me. A rigid conservative theologian responsible for a racist and alienating encyclopedia of dogma called Mormon Doctrine, he also offered, some months before he died, a witness to God, a transmission of knowledge, of immense power that has touched me many times. I like to think to myself that his final testimony was secretly an apology, that in those moments he wanted more than anything to share the core knowledge, the transformative truth of God’s reality and his presence in our lives.

I believe that we can take our direction from Joseph Smith. He embraced knowledge wherever he found it: in a stone box on Cumorah, in an angel’s expressive face, in a seerstone and Urim and Thummin, in Scottish Rite Masonry, in Hebrew lessons, in abolitionism and political discourse. Everything is alive with divinity, a fact confirmed in the Doctrine and Covenants, when he writes, that “all things unto [God] are spiritual.” (29:34.)

When the question of variations in interpretations of doctrine arose in the early church, Joseph Smith had an expansive view. A Brother Pelatiah Brown, was censured by the High Council for heresy based on his belief that beasts in Revelation referred to kingdoms. In response Joseph Smith said, “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine…I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

I have made few conclusions in my comments today, intentionally. In my understanding, the knowledge that matters is the quickening of our souls, the fact, feeling, emotion, connection that makes us devoted to God, that brings us into communion with him. And this is something that we choose, that we give our heart to. This understanding has helped me feel firmer in the faith, more reliably grounded in the Gospel as I continue to choose to believe, to make myself dependent on God.

I believe that understanding spiritual knowledge, the kind that matters, as choosing Communion with God is at once very liberating and very compelling. This insight allows all of us to have our own faith walk with God, while uniting us in the eternal quest for his presence. I believe that there is room in the contemporary church for a broad range of beliefs. There are those among us who hunger for milk, and those who cannot live without meat. But there are also vegetarians and those who suffer from lactose intolerance. And there is room’s in God’s all-encompassing communion for all of them.

I believe it’s fair to wonder after such an obscure theological ramble what it is that I know. I share this, my testimony, and hope that each of us feels in touch with her/his own.

I know that I love my wife and my daughter. I choose them, and our union chooses me and engulfs me. I give them my heart and soul.

I know that God exists. I sense his presence in and above all. I am aware of him, and I choose him. I give him my heart and soul.

I know that I am a Mormon Christian. I feel it through my genealogy, in the fact that I’m a grandson of a woman with six names. I feel it in the language I use, in the comfort I feel inside a church. I feel it in the family I became conscious in and the family I am creating, founded in the temple and continually informed by our traditions.

I know that we are all the offspring of God. Literally, fully, beautifully, the way Joseph Smith meant it. Because I know that I know two more things: I know people ought not to be exploited or killed, and I know that I love wild places.

God bless us to choose to know our Eternal Parent.


  1. Beautifully expressed, I can think of nothing to add.

    Thank You

  2. Sam, thanks. This is really outstanding.

    You seem to have taken the position that belief is a choice. I agree with that position, for the most part, but I don’t know how to defend it. I’m puzzled that belief seems to come naturally to some, and others seem to be natural-born skeptics.

  3. I agree there’s a huge spectrum of natural ability to believe (what critics call credulity and skeptics call faithfulness, though neither is an apt term). For me there’s an important distinction between belief/faith/acceptance of a teaching and this salvific knowing that I talk about. This knowing can be a response both to the perfectly natural and unshakable faith in some thing, OR it can be a response to uncertainty. From my perspective, what saves us and sanctifies us is the act of choosing, rather than whether we happen to have been naturally endowed with the ability to believe.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Sam, isn’t the salvific act sometimes the act of choosing to follow in the absence of a natural ability to believe?

  5. Nice discourse, Sam. Unlike, Mark IV, I don’t believe that we can choose to believe (though we can choose to facilitate belief). I find that your characterization of dogma is spot on.

    …and I can’t resist. Regarding the etymology of testimony, see Kevin’s fun post here.

  6. re: 4, i agree. i was trying to say that in a less direct way, but that’s basically what I mean with “response to uncertainty”
    re: 5 and the testis, i was going off my historical linguist grad student friends who read me one of their papers on this, in which they outlined what I remember as classical Latin authors commenting on this use of the term. I should try to track those papers down. If it’s erroneous (and I’m with Kevin that much of scholarship proves erroneous in some way or at some time), it’s a very old error that was much-commented in Latin, so it’s possible that the revisionism Kevin reports is also incomplete.

    This reminds me of my great sadness in realizing (thanks to Aleksandr Men) that the sequential levels of Greek love used in the Jesus:Peter “feed my sheep” interaction are not present in Aramaic and thus probably did not exist in the original interaction, no matter how the hellenophiles croon at their sophistication.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Was this a sacrament meeting talk? If so, Sam, you deserve some sort of an award for using the word “gonad” and referring to Mormon Doctrine as “racist and alienating” over the pulpit–even if it was in Boston!

    On the different levels of love thing, that really doesn’t work even in Greek. The Greek verbs phileO and agapaO are used mostly synonymously in the NT, and so the variation is probably just stylistic.

  8. Sam,

    I am curious. How did this talk go over with your audience?

    rapt attention or lots of heads down?

  9. It explains the reasoning for a man’s thought pattern. “testemonies!” too funny :)

  10. it’s funny, when i was living in boston, it didn’t even occur to me that the talk would be controversial. I felt it was faith affirming and an appropriate offering for our ward community. that was my home for so long that i think people probably humored me at times and may even have agreed with me occasionally. It may have helped that we were meeting in a decommissioned boiler factory. i don’t remember any negative feedback, but I didn’t go hunting for it either. I may have to think twice before giving similar talks in my Rocky Mountain home, now that I think about it.

  11. bbell, this talk didn’t raise an eyebrow; Sam said things of this flavor each week in Sunday School and Priesthood. His comments were insightful, usually appropriate, and a welcome counter balance. I think even those whom he countered appreciated it.

    Sam, I truly hope your relocation hasn’t changed the flavor of your Sunday contributions. If so, you might think about heading back to the RIGHT coast.

  12. Sam,
    I’m going to give this as a talk one day and pass it off as my own. Ta.

  13. But before I do, you need to help me with a couple of things:

    1.I know that we are all the offspring of God. Literally, fully, beautifully, the way Joseph Smith meant it. How did Joseph mean it?

    2. If I do not have Mormon genealogy, can I ever be truly Mormon?

  14. Awesome talk!

  15. no problem, R (12), and re 13, you would have to push the rhetoric, wouldn’t you?
    re your 2, i will agree that it is harder if it’s not your family church. i think it’s a question of creating identity and involves more of a choice, but i believe that proselytes can find great richness as well. if you think about it, the LDS (as opposed to RLDS) church is FOUNDED on proselytes–Uncle John and Hyrum’s kids were basically the only family members to head West. that has to count for something.
    re your 1, this is an area where i exercise the most choice. JSJ believed that there is an exalted former human running the show and he shaped our development as premortal spirits and interacts with us as a parent and is somehow responsible for our humanity. I choose to believe it, no matter how silly it sounds to a skeptic’s eye (the general notion of God’s parenthood as understood by some Protestants is a bit easier on the credule but it tastes a bit flat to me).

  16. he shaped our development as premortal spirits

    Around these parts we’ve sometimes argued as to whether “shaped” = “gave birth to” (via a Heavenly Mother). Sorry to be so crude, but a man’s gotta know.

  17. ah, that. this arises from reference back from JSJ’s vision of the afterlife. in this afterlife, there is a process rather like sexual reproduction hinted at, and JSJ was assiduously literal when it came to mapping the highlights of human life onto heavenly latticework, so I would suspect that something like this is precisely what JSJ intended. the difficulty is in dealing with labor, and I suspect that something like a mystical c-section is part of birthgiving in heaven. on this note, the agricultural intellectuals (FARMS), may find _nishamah_ interesting, this idea of breath of life in Hebrew that supposedly arises from the heavy breathing of labor.

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