On Epistemological Crises, Humility and Building Zion

In a recent post, Jason K. posed a series of challenging questions aimed at furthering the cause of Zion. One of them—How much attention to the nitty-gritty details of Church history does unity require?—prompted some thoughts that I decided to develop here rather than risk derailing his efforts there.

At any rate, I reckon that the attention we pay to the details of Church history ought to be commensurate with the scope of what we think we know, whether by experience, testimony or study out of the best books. Thinking about what we know and how we know it may help modulate the spectrum of responses (to the polygamy essays, but other historical issues also fit the bill) described by Jason as ranging from “WHAT?!” <-> *yawn* to something like “raised eyebrow” <-> “knowing look”, which could foster an environment more conducive to unity. By coming to terms with the “nature, sources and limits of knowledge”, we may be less prone to surprise when it turns out we were wrong or missing pieces of the puzzle. Moreover, in recognizing that becoming knowledgeable is a (difficult) work in progress, those who “already knew that” might be more inclined to respond charitably to those working to accommodate new-found knowledge into their worldviews.

Giving thought to how we know what we know seems like a worthwhile endeavor, not least because as Mormons, we believe that through the Holy Ghost we can access knowledge of things that are not otherwise knowable (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:11 and John 14:17), including

the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves His children; that Jesus Christ lives, that He is the Son of God, and that He carried out the infinite Atonement; that Joseph Smith is the prophet of God who was called to restore the gospel; that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior’s true Church on the earth; and that the Church is led by a living prophet today. With this foundation, a testimony grows to include all principles of the gospel.

That a fledgling testimony can develop into one that encompasses all principles of the gospel is remarkable, but before we get too carried away with the possibilities of omniscience we ought to consider whether there are limits to the knowledge gained through testimony. For example, Elder Oaks plainly states that a testimony, which he defines as “a personal witness borne to our souls by the Holy Ghost that certain facts of eternal significance are true,” is a way of knowing that is unlike others with which we may have more practical experience:

 What do we mean when we testify and say that we know the gospel is true? Contrast that kind of knowledge with “I know it is cold outside” or “I know I love my wife.” These are three different kinds of knowledge, each learned in a different way. […]When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods.

We have the promise that our knowledge of spiritual things can be just as sure as knowledge gained through more familiar pursuits, but that doesn’t appear to mean that a testimony tells us the same thing as a history book and consequently would not be much of a substitute. At a minimum, we know that testimony does not necessarily insulate us from what Spencer Fluhman described as an “epistemological crisis” experienced by those who struggle “to come to grips with the complex realities of our past, of ‘things as . . . they [really] were,’ to paraphrase D&C 93. […]For many in the midst of a faith crisis, the old ways of knowing become suspect. Can they trust past spiritual experiences?”

I submit that one reason such questions arise is the result of discovering that spiritual experiences have been unconsciously substituted for knowledge of, say, the nitty-gritty details of Church history, which are more amenable to acquisition by the different methods mentioned by Elder Oaks. Such cases are captured by the “WHAT?!” end of Jason K’s spectrum of reactions to historical issues. But I also contend that the dismissive *yawn*is also symptomatic of unwarranted confidence—while those who lean towards “WHAT?!” may be in the process of discovering that they have assumed too much, those on the *yawn*end have probably failed to appreciate how tenuous the foundations of the world as they know it can be.

Whether we agree with Elder Oaks’ taxonomy of knowledge and whether it is possible to know “the nature of the Godhead and our relationship to its three members, the effectiveness of the Atonement, and the reality of the Restoration,” it is safe to say that all of us, from atheists to Zoroastrians, regularly fail to appreciate how little we actually know, mostly because we don’t feel particularly ignorant as we go about our daily lives. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains:

 A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. […] The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. […] Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

This blissful ignorance is helpful in avoiding paralysis in a hopelessly complex world, and for the most part our intuitions serve us well—we can be anxiously engaged in good causes and bring to pass much righteousness while being completely unaware of all kinds of information. However, we should be aware of what we are doing in order to avoid surprise when the curtains are lifted and temper the inclination to scoff at such discomfort in others. Kahneman continues:

 If a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly, [the intuitive judgment system] will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. I call the operation of answering one question in place of another substitution.

When it comes to Church history, a testimony of, for example, the power of the Book of Mormon or the divine call of Joseph Smith is sometimes substituted for knowledge of the historical record. We feel good about what we know and assume that what we see is all there is. With more immediate access to memories of spiritual manifestations than to bygone ages and dusty tomes, it hardly comes as a surprise that we do this, sometimes even doubling down on our convictions in our ignorance, for the less we know, the more certain we tend to be (once again quoting Kahneman):

 You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.

The mental processes making up a good story to fill in the gaps of our knowledge hardly stop at the chapel doors. Paul’s observation that “for now we see through a glass, darkly” is practically a cliché but only because he was on to something. Acknowledgement that there are different kinds of knowledge, that we may unconsciously substitute one for the other, and that what we see is far from all there is could help us, among other things, come to terms with the complex realities of Church history and avoid contempt of those who still struggle with them.

I suppose there is a risk that indulging in such introspection could result in paralyzing self-doubt. But I think there is enough room between that and unwarranted confidence that it’s worth a shot. After all, we wouldn’t want to be firmly rooted on the wrong side of history or traveling resolutely down the highway to hell just because it never occurred to us do otherwise. As Elder Oaks urges, “in all of our testifying we must avoid arrogance and pride,” and this is one way of accomplishing that and avoiding the mistake of the six men of Indostan who “describ[e] truth … from personal experience, each insist[ing] that he knows what he knows.” Elder Uchtdorf promises that “as you accept the responsibility to seek after truth with an open mind and a humble heart, you will become more tolerant of others, more open to listen, more prepared to understand, more inclined to build up instead of tearing down, and more willing to go where the Lord wants you to go.” And that sounds like a good basis for building Zion even if we not yet all on the same page.


  1. Thanks for this, Peter: it’s exactly the kind of response I hoped my post would generate! There’s so much to like here, but for me humility is key, especially in the recognition that people are always going to be at different stages of learning about things. I think that’s a very effective response to the “everyone should have known about this all along” response, because nobody knew it all along, just like nobody knew all along that “red” is the name of that color on the fire engine. So we should have charity and empathy toward those who are in the earlier stages of learning that we are.

    And I think that doing that is conducive to what I take as your second major point, that we should strive to become aware of the limits of our knowledge. I honestly don’t see how any real learning can occur unless we do that. I love how you use Kahnemann to illustrate how difficult such awareness is to cultivate, so we should have charity and empathy for people who find that a tough row to hoe (as we all do, probably most of the time).

  2. Maybe humility means admitting the church isn’t everything it claims?

  3. Excellent post. Thank you, Peterllc.

  4. Not your catchiest title, but this is solid stuff. I like your approach on the problem of too many choices.

  5. Yeah, I had nothing left when it came time to give this one a name. Maybe for my next post I’ll encourage reader participation by soliciting titles and ranking the results.

  6. I have a question slightly related to this post: Who writes and approves the various essays posted to LDS.org? There are a lot of documents (including the polygamy essays) without attribution. How would you track down who wrote a specific document for questions?

  7. Thanks, Peter. I like what you are doing here a lot.

  8. JA: the essays seem to have been written by committee, and I understand that they have to be vetted before they’re posted, which probably results in revisions, so tracking down a precise author probably isn’t possible. The questions, then, are for us as a community to raise and discuss.

  9. One of my favorite movies is Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which confronts this issue of limited knowledge and what we do with it head on. I love his conclusion, which seems to me to be about the only thing we can do. Thanks for a good post.

  10. JA, see this page for a partial answer to your question: https://www.lds.org/help/acp/overview-of-ldsorg/social-media?lang=eng

    “Governance and Oversight

    All Church websites, social media, and mobile resources require approval from the requesting executive council, Area Presidency, or equivalent organization. During conceptual or early design stages, departments, areas, and councils are to submit the “Request for Church Website, Social Media, or Mobile Application” form to Correlation Intellectual Property. The Publishing Services Partner (PSP) typically submits this request on behalf of the initiating department in coordination with web, social media, and mobile advisers.

    The Correlation Department, after privacy, intellectual property, and visual identity items have been addressed, will forward the request on to the Communication Services Committee (CSC). The purpose of the CSC’s review is to promote effective and standardized use of web, mobile, and social media resources in (1) providing a common message to the world, (2) conserving resources, and (3) staying alert to new opportunities of electronic communication. Requests are typically processed by Correlation within 10 business days.”

  11. J. Stapley says:

    It is my understanding, and Elder Snow indicated as much, that the essays are generated by competent scholars, then are vetted by the Church History Department, ultimately to be reviewed and approved by the council of the FP and Q12.

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