“I Beseech You, in the Bowels of Christ, Think it Possible You May Be Mistaken”

RV-AH558_RIDLEY_G_20120720012214

“Is it therefore infallibly agreeable to the Word of God, all that you say? I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”–Oliver Cromwell, letter to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland (3 August 1650)

Five years ago, I wrote a book about evolution and human cognition. This was a stretch for me, as I am a three-time English major, so I did a lot of research. It was fascinating research, which taught me a lot of important things about knowledge, human nature, cognition, and storytelling. It also taught me the single most depressing thing that I know, which is this: human reason did not evolve to help us find the truth; it evolved to help us defend positions arrived at in largely unreasonable ways.

The reasons for this lie deep in the reptilian corners of our brains. Natural selection selects for what is useful, which may or may not be what is true. Decisiveness is useful. Appearing confident is useful. Defending one’s turf is useful. And winning fights is always useful. But knowing the truth about abstract universal propositions involving beauty, truth, and God? Not so much. It turns out that appearing to know the truth about these things is much more valuable, evolutionarily speaking, than actually being right.

Culture reinforces these evolutionary dynamics in different ways. Mormon culture, for example, places an enormous premium on appearing to know the truth, especially in religious matters. Few people ever stand up in testimony meeting to proclaim that they think the Church is true, or even that they hope or believe the Church is true. From the time we can talk, we announce from the pulpit that we know the Church is true. We know it from the bottom of our hearts, with every fiber of our beings, absolutely, certainly, completely, just like Moroni promised.

Even those present and former Mormons who do not accept the Church’s teachings or fact claims often bring a very Mormon sense of certainty into what are supposed to be their doubts and uncertainties. The rhetoric of absolute certainty seems to survive much longer in Latter-day Saints than any of the particular things that we claim to be certain about.

But here’s the deal: you are wrong about stuff. I am wrong about stuff. We are all wrong about stuff. This is just math. Given the number of things that all of us believe (or do not believe) to be facts, the number of things that we consider (or do not consider) valuable, and the number of policies that we think (or do not think) will work, there is no possible way that we are going to be right about everything. We understand this retroactively. We can all remember times that we were wrong in the past. But such is the nature of human cognition that we can barely even fathom what we might be wrong about today.

And this is why Cromwell’s challenge–“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you might be mistaken”–is so important to us (and yes, I do realize how ironic it is to quote Oliver Cromwell on the possibility of being wrong). Another word for this is “humility.” This is important because it actually is part of our religion, and because it makes us people that other people can stand to be around. But it is also important because, as a matter of near-mathematical certainty, we actually are wrong about some religious things–and probably quite a few.

Most of the (considerable) harm done in the world in the name of religion has been done by people who are absolutely certain that they are right and that somebody else is wrong. These we call fanatics. But much of the (also considerable) good that has been done through religion has been done by those who, acknowledging that they see through a glass darkly, do their best to enact the tenets of their faith as they understand it, while still being willing to consider–on a very deep level that they cannot separate from their core beliefs–that they just might be mistaken. These we call disciples.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Mike. I don’t love everything about Cromwell, but I do love that quote.

  2. “Most of the (considerable) harm done in the world in the name of religion has been done by people who are absolutely certain that they are right and that somebody else is wrong. And most of the (also considerable) good that has been done through religion has been done by those who, acknowledging that they see through a glass darkly, do their best to enact the tenets of their faith as they understand it, while still being willing to consider–on a very deep level that they cannot separate from their core beliefs–that they just might be mistaken.”

    I don’t think that this assertion is true. I think the great challenge of religion is that the great good and great evil are often done by the same people. People often do good things while believing for certain that they have the one true way. Religion can teach people to do good while leading them to believe and/or act in other ways that are harmful.

  3. I don’t think that this assertion is true. I think the great challenge of religion is that the great good and great evil are often done by the same people.

    I have to agree with Trevor here, Michael. Your point that “most of the (also considerable) good that has been done through religion has been done by those who, acknowledging that they see through a glass darkly” obviously has much truth to it: the normal, everyday, humble, kindly goods of life really are, I concur, mostly the product of religious believers being tolerant and patient and attentive and succoring–all of which are attributes which can only be strengthened by committing to the Cromwell quote you begin with. But unfortunately, I am doubtful that normal, everyday, humble, kindly acts of goodness did much to end slavery or Jim Crow or apartheid, or lift up the poor or the aged or the disabled or the marginalized. For that, for better or worse, you need zeal. I suppose it is not impossible for someone to be an absolutely humble zealot in a cause that they know to be true. But to walk such a walk would require near-divine levels of wisdom, I think.

  4. I agree, Russell, that religious (or political) zeal is necessary (or at least helpful) for the huge, workd-historical changes, some of which turn out OK. John Brown has his uses. But I am much more concerned with the ordinary actions of non-famous people interacting with other non-famous people every day. It is here, in my observation, that most of the good in the world is done by religious people who are NOT zealots or fanatics but are just trying to live their beliefs as well as possible.

    This is something that, I think, the Richard Dawkins-Sam Harris-Christopher Hitchens types so often miss. They go straight to the world-historical examples of religious fanaticism—the Crusades, the Witch Trials, the World Trade Center bombings, etc, and they conclude that religion is a force for evil. But they ignore the millions of basically good people trying to live their religion a little bit better who help people move, work at food distribution centers, donate the the United Way, and generally make things more pleasant. Those people, I have found, are rarely zealots.

  5. This. Thank you.

  6. Michael, those people may not be zealots, but they also very rarely consider what you’re asking them to in the original post. I know many people who are very good people, who try to live righteously, but who refuse to consider that they are wrong in any way about the beliefs they hold dear. How do we get non-zealous people, who believe they are doing God’s will, including ourselves, to consider they are wrong and need to revisit the things they believe strongly? How especially, in a culture of absolute certainty, can we expect normal people to confront that culture and their own human nature enough to start from a position of expecting they are wrong?

  7. The funny thing about this is that when you talk about this as a fact of human nature, everyone will agree that this is a major issue (with everyone else). It’s so easy to see all of those nice well meaning people who are obviously wrong but they just don’t know it, even when I tell them so.

    lord is it I? Yes, yes it is.

  8. Several months ago in Fast & Testimony Meeting, I read Alma 32:21 (faith is not a perfect knowledge) and then I stated that I believe that the Church is true, I believe that Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus Christ. Nowhere did I use the word “know” (though I had been using that word my entire life). Thankfully, both of the Sister Missionaries in our ward thanked me and told me that my words helped their investigator to not feel awkward for not “knowing” the BOM was true. Unfortunately, several members of the ward have asked me questions like “Are you ok?”, and “How is your testimony?”. Though it is hard to describe why, I believe that my faith in Christ as well as the church has actually become stronger since I stopped using the word “know”.

  9. I don’t know. This sounds reasonable, and you’ve put it eloquently, so I want to agree with it, but when I try to put it in practical terms — to imagine actually being wrong on the things that matter, I can’t do it. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear the chortling and see the pointing fingers from here.)

    I mean that there are many things that might be negotiable: I might be mistaken about who or what God is, or how he works or what he expects of me today — but there are also things that are non-negotiable: that there is a God, and a plan, and that I have a role in that plan. Even in a thought experiment, there is something in me deep and fundamental that rebels at considering I might be wrong about certain things. Some things I do know beyond the possibility of reconsideration.

    If that’s fanaticism, I’ll have to live with the label.

  10. I don’t think the problem is that people have a small handful of things they are sure about–I think the problem is too many people are too sure of too many things.

  11. If you would add one more level (nuance?) I could agree. Call it the mote and beam problem: Most of the (considerable harm) in the name of religion has been done by people who are absolutely certain about what is right and wrong for others (the mote). Much of the (considerable) good has been done by people who may be absolutely certain about what is right and wrong for themselves (the beam), but see through a glass darkly regarding what is right for others.

  12. I would certainly agree that we are drawn to confidence, as an attribute in people (for example, Donald Trump).. Confidence is powerful, assertiveness is attractive, “appearing to know” something and being unequivocal in how we defend our message is a powerful attribute. When that confidence is in something wrong, or when we don’t really “know”, well – that’s obviously not good. A mistaken but confident leader could march his followers confidently down the wrong path (disastrously… trying hard to avoid making another allusion to Trump..)

    But it’s entirely possible to have a certain knowledge of spiritual things. We can know that Joseph experienced the First Vision, although we may not have a complete picture of all the details. Just because confidence is powerful doesn’t mean we should avoid it in spiritual matters. Quite the contrary in my opinion. No one was ever converted through a waffling / weak testimony. I wouldn’t advocate for anyone to feel constrained by custom or peer-pressure to say they know.. We should be accepting of where everyone is. But if you know (as I certainly do), you shouldn’t be afraid to say it. If you just believe, then say you believe – that’s the truth. Nothing wrong with that.

    The purpose of testimony meeting is to invite the Spirit, so that He can confirm to the listeners the truth of what is being said. A pure simple direct testimony is one the most powerful ways to invite that spirit.

  13. Angela C says:

    Excellent post. Of course, it’s not possible to experience the feeling of being wrong because once we know we were wrong we are right again.

  14. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    I really like the OP and it resonates with me strongly. I’ve long had an aversion to the strong “truth claim” language we seem to encourage and inculcate in our primary children. But for me it’s more than just the difference between stating you “know” something vs. you “believe” or “hope”. I mean, I get that – – and I do prefer the softer language of belief and hope. And in that sense I completely agree with the OP and those commenters that veer away from always talking about what they “know” in their testimonies…

    But for me it’s a slightly larger issue: why are we so (culturally) obsessed with the whole idea of explicitly stating truth claims in the first place, regardless of whether we use the word “know” or “believe”? In other words, in my view the weirdest thing about our testimony culture isn’t that it overemphasizes/pressures the overuse of what we “know” (although I agree that it does), but rather: the weirdest thing is that we seem to have settled on the idea that the entirety of a testimony is the asserting/rehearsing of what we know/believe. How often have we been reminded from the pulpit that a testimony shouldn’t be a travelogue etc, but should instead just focus on one’s knowledge of several key ideas (divinity of the Savior, etc)? We’re explicitly instructed to do this!

    Is it just me who finds this weird?

    Here’s an analogy: if you have a favorite band, and you have some zeal for sharing the goodness that is that band’s music, do you simply state to your friends the bald truth claim of “hey, I know that Band XYZ is the best band in the world”? Of course you don’t! What you do is: you tell your friend what you like about the band, why the lyrics speak to you, why the musicians are superb, and of course you ultimately sit them down and say “you’ve got to listen to this!”

    I wish testimony meetings were full of more of this type of thing – – us explaining WHY we love the Savior. HOW we’ve been blessed by the gospel. Expressing gratitude for the guidance that the scriptures have provided, etc. None of this requires the pedantic stating of “I know” or “I believe” anything. The idea that you value the gospel is implicit. Of course, I realize that some of this goes on.. but still! Any given testimony meeting is much more dominated by truth claim assertions than it is anything else.

    So that’s my bigger wish: not that we’d simply do less “I know” and more “I believe”… but instead that we’d do less of both.

  15. BlueRidgeMormon,

    I totally agree that testimony meeting should include sharing experiences. Those are the testimony meetings that I love, and I think that our faith is shared more fully that way rather than simply stating the same things over and over. Luckily, my current ward is really good at truly sharing with each other during testimony meetings, but I’ve definitely been in wards where it’s been the dry repetition. In fact, on my mission, the members had it hammered into them to just say the basics. The boredom turned away investigators, and I was apprehensive come every first Sunday of the month.