The Prophet Project: How Can I Understand? by Elder Soares

Perhaps you are familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect? It is the psychological tic that so many of us have that allows us to think we are competent when we are not and incompetent when we are. The less we know, the more likely we are to think we get things right. The more we know, the more likely we are to see our faults and shortcomings. As I read through Elder Ulisses Soares’s recent conference talk, “How can I understand?”, I couldn’t help but think about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how it influences us.

When you are a teacher, you quickly learn that there is never really enough time. To prepare, to teach, to learn the material yourself. And you learn that convincing yourself that you have learned the material closes yourself up, making it harder to change your opinion if your knowledge later turns out to be incorrect. For that matter, teaching is something mysterious. You speak a lot, trying to use metaphor and example to convey knowledge, and it only works when your student has a magical moment of insight and connection. You can’t force someone to learn, there is no brute force way to do this. Only connect.

This is why I find Doctrine and Covenants Section 50 so powerful, because it reveals the hand of God in every act of learning. In verses 17-23, the Lord breaks down what is necessary for learning (at least the learning of spiritual things) to take place. You must have the spirit. You can cite scholars, general authorities, prophets, your mission president, and your youth leaders until you are blue in the face and if you don’t have the spirit, it doesn’t mean anything. The members will just stare passively at you and actively at their phones.

And the thing about the Spirit is that you can invite it, but you can’t make it come either. That edification that comes when you learn and grow together is a grace from God. Elder Soares’s talk is a primer on how to send the invitation. Preparation, proper living, prayer, and sincere intent all play a part, but we don’t control the Spirit, we only hope for its presence. Nor do we always notice it; I’ve taught lessons that I thought went nowhere only to later learn that something I said touched someone’s heart. It’s a mystery.

This is why I don’t really have much of a problem with the Come Follow Me manuals. As a source of scriptural knowledge, they are terrible. But they do help teach people to invite the spirit so that they can be changed. And that, really, is the goal of church manuals. You won’t become a scriptorian through their influence, but you will hopefully become a better person.

Which brings me back to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Maybe what we need and what we get from Sunday School and other church teaching is to feel like we understand more than we really do. After all, faith is the reliance on a power that is beyond your control or understanding. And humility is the embrace of one’s own ignorance in the face of God’s goodness. So while the Dunning-Kruger effect is seen as mostly negative in the world (with good reason), perhaps in church it is a necessary state. Our faith is only possible through our ignorance, after all.


  1. jlouielucero says:

    I really liked this. It is easy for me to miss the spirit when I think I know something instead of being open to learning. Thank you

  2. A joy to read. A great insight concerning the new SS manual. Can’t wait to read your next contribution. Thank you!

  3. Jared Livesey says:

    We are commanded: “[T]he Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). As we know, the Lord dwelleth not in unholy temples, but in the hearts of the righteous doth he dwell (Alma 34:36). To be teachers, then, we are required be righteous – which means walking in God’s ways and keeping his commandments.

    Alma counseled thus: “And also trust no one to be your teacher nor your minister, except he be a man of God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments” (Mosiah 23:14). But to be competent to make this judgement of another’s competence one must oneself know the ways of God and know what his commandments are.

    There is a catch – “And no man knoweth of his ways save it be revealed unto him” (Jacob 4:8). So to be a competent teacher of the gospel, or a competent student of the gospel, requires that one have the ways of God revealed personally to oneself. And how do we obtain that revelation from God?

    1 Nephi 15:11, Earliest Text
    Do ye not remember the thing which the Lord hath said?
    If ye will not harden your hearts
    and ask me in faith
    believing that ye shall receive
    with diligence in keeping my commandments
    surely these things shall be made known unto you.

    And we know what God’s commandments are – those things Jesus commanded by his own mouth to the Jews at Jerusalem and the Nephites at Bountiful – the Sermon on the Mount.

    3 Nephi 15:10
    Behold, I have given unto you the commandments.
    Therefore keep my commandments.
    And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me.

    Thus we see that to be either competent teachers or competent students (“disciples”) of the gospel of Jesus Christ we must be diligent in doing the things Jesus said to do in the Sermon.

    John 8:31-32
    If ye continue in my word then are ye my disciples indeed;
    and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

  4. I really like the thought / reminder that religion is supposed to be for everyone, and the very point of faith is the absence of knowledge. Intellectualism certainly can help strengthen religious devotion, but if we set up scholarly knowledge as a requirement to access God then we’re getting something very fundamental wrong about God.

  5. Thank you.

  6. Reinhard says:

    Not sure how the Dunning-Kruger effect fits in here. Overconfidence in one’s own knowledge and understanding would seem a liability simpliciter. You argue that faith fills in the difference, but what if your faith is misplaced? Why do faith and intelligence have to be at odds? The Spirit is always helpful but God, I believe, expects we do some of the thinking for ourselves. Just having faith, with little effort expended in the pursuit of deeper knowledge or understanding, strikes me as just being lazy and thinking you know everything important already. How else could we grow? Joseph Smith knew the Spirit well, I think, but he still sought after knowledge and understanding.

  7. Carolyn.
    This little nugget by Kierkegaard feels relevant to the OP and your lovely comment:

    “The realm of faith is thus not a class for numskulls in the sphere of the intellectual, or an asylum for the feeble minded. Faith constitutes a sphere all by itself, and every misunderstanding of Christianity may at once be recognized by its transforming it into a doctrine, transforming it to the sphere of the intellectual. The maximum of attainment within the sphere of the intellectual, namely, to realize an entire indifference as the reality of the teacher (God – parentheticals are mine), is in the sphere of faith at the opposite end of the scale. The maximum of attainment within the sphere of faith is to become infinitely interested (engaged – immersed?) in the reality of the teacher (God).” (From Concluding Unscientific Postscript).

    Perhaps it is more about knowing God, than knowing about God. And that is very personal, and even a true-and-living-priesthood-key-angelic-ministration-restored church can get in the way of that personal knowledge if we focus too much on making everything consistent or make sense. This is the mystical unseen church, with love as its prime imperative. and the fundamental about God? God is love. His love IS unconditional, love IS ultimately all we need, it IS ultimately all there is. Every other idea eventually falls down. Without Charity we are nothing… but I may be rambling here, so I will stop.

    John, may I spam with a link to a maybe relevant poem? :)

  8. I agree Reinhard that we should not be lazy, we should try to think things through, we just cannot be sure that our conclusions will make any ultimate sense since we are all such silly creatures. So much of our tribalisms and divisions arise from marking out dividing lines and boundaries in the pursuit of dialing down in an effort to try to make our intellectual theories-history-mishmash all try to make consistent sense, when the primary purpose of our existence here is not to make any of this make sense, but to learn how to love and to trust and to have faith in God – always a very personal journey. But it is good to seek after knowledge and understanding, just DO NOT trust it too much. Maybe the reason God wants us to do some of the thinking ourselves is so we can eventually humbly realize how bad we are it, (present company excepted of course, hehe).

  9. I disagree that faith is ignorance based. Faith grows through experience; which to me fights ignorance.

  10. Jader,
    Faith contains, at least initially some component of ignorance inherently, does it not? I think of the whole “not to have a perfect knowledge” aspect.

  11. @Lona Gynt, I still don’t think that ignorance has any component of Faith. Ignorance is more than just not fully knowing. Ignorance is more along the lines of completely not knowing. We start out ignorant, have a desire to believe and then take some actions to grow that desire of belief into belief and then into faith. When we’re in the stage of having Faith, we’ve moved past ignorance even if we haven’t achieved a perfect knowledge.
    I find Faith and Ignorance to be mutually exclusive.

  12. Jader. Thank you. I get it, you may be right, I have been in the Alma 32 garden all my life, it is a good place, in fact it’s delicious. Still, There is so much we cannot know, so much we are ignorant of and might not even be aware that we are ignorant. I have been in that space when I thought I knew it all, had it all figured out. I was twenty. Actual life has been full of more surprises than could have been imagined, I do have faith that Christ can help me Through swamps of ignorance that I don’t even know I’m stuck in.

  13. Glenn Thigpen says:

    I do not think the Dunning-Kruger effect would be good or the faith of members of the church if it leads us to “feel like we understand more than we really do.” It would lead to constant criticism of Church leaders at all levels as everyone would pretty much believe that they understand things at least as well as even the prophet and the twelve and challenge them on just about every policy decision that comes down the pike. Fortunately the Dunning-Kruger effect is absent in the general church membership as each policy announcement is greeted with a solid show of enthusiasm with few if any dissenting voices.


  14. Lona,
    Poetry is almost always welcome. Go ahead.

    We are indeed meant to grow in knowledge, but perfect knowledge removes faith. Because you know. Or, really, what Lona said.

    That is definitely a possible effect of Dunning-Kruger on members and, honestly, I’d say that interactions with Mormons online and IRL bare out your supposition regarding how it would affect us. This is where most “deep doctrine” originates. Of course, I see a lot of people so confident in their own ability to keep commandments and follow the brethren that they fail in some other pretty basic commandments. We’ve all got our problems and blind spots, no?

  15. Thank you John, here it is- oh and I wanted to say, I find your Prophet project both ambitious and inspiring.

  16. Eric Facer says:

    “This is why I don’t really have much of a problem with the Come Follow Me manuals. As a source of scriptural knowledge, they are terrible. But they do help teach people to invite the spirit so that they can be changed. And that, really, is the goal of church manuals. You won’t become a scriptorian through their influence, but you will hopefully become a better person.”

    I do not find this line of reasoning persuasive. This is treating “scriptural knowledge” as an academic exercise that has no bearing on a person’s spiritual development. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    In order to see the spiritual direction in which the Savior would have us go, we must first make a concerted effort to understand his teachings. And because those teachings are provocative and complex, they require in-depth study to comprehend. For this reason, the scriptural literalism and superficial reading of the scriptures that characterize our manuals can never yield the spiritual insight and personal growth and development that come from wrestling and grappling with the scriptures.

    Sure, on a basic, simplistic level, the Come Follow Me manuals can help you “become a better person.” But so can several self-help books at my local bookstore. We can do better. And I believe the Savior wants us to—not just individually, but as a church.

  17. This is more of a corollary than a direct comment, I think. But as I was reading your post, I was struck by how we Mormons get caught up in “knowing” things. And how that knowing can keep us in blinders. The more I’ve embraced, I don’t want to say ignorance so let’s go with mystery, and stepped away from a stance of absolutely knowing things about God or eternity, the more comforted I’ve felt with my own place within the vast sweep of existence. I don’t presume to know God, but in that un-knowing I feel a greater peace.

    Ugh, I’m not explaining this very well. I do echo the importance of living by faith. That it’s not a set of boxes to be ticked off, that God isn’t only pleased with us if we’re living a certain semblance of a life. That God loves us in our messiness.

    But I do also appreciate the study of faith. We’re all searching, and in our searching we can help each other understand. And I certainly appreciate historical and archaeological scholarship that helps put the scriptures into a lived context. Because understanding the context helps us understand how the prophets’ perspective shaped how they interacted with God.

  18. blondeandfullofgrit says:

    I accompanied my study of Holy Week in the SS manual with an old Institute manual, “The Life & Teachings of Jesus and His Apostles.” In it were sections from Doctrinal New Testament Commentary by Bruce R. McConkie, Jesus The Christ, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, David O. McKay, etc. I approached these sources with some trepidation, but honestly, I hadn’t heard anyone recently mention by name the “abomination of desolation,” which is something I think we should be recognizing by that name. For many years in the Church, I thought it was enough to have only a quad and some books by General Authorities. Then I met a man who was a scriptorian, who left me a Strong’s Concordance, OT and NT dictionaries to further understand the Greek and Hebraic words, as well as commentaries. We need to recognize that Christendom has been studying scripture long before Latter-day Saints, and they know some things about studying that we don’t. Although I have to give credit to F.A.R.M.S. for expanding my Book of Mormon appreciation and study. I believe that when the student is ready, the teacher wil come.

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