Epistemic Humility and the Crisis in the Church

Human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolours the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.
                                    —Francis Bacon, Novum Organon

You are wrong. You are profoundly and disturbingly wrong about a spectacularly large number of things. You accept facts that are not facts, values that are incompatible with each other, and a fair number of truly dumb ideas about how to change the world. If you ever really understood the extent of your wrongness, you would never trust another word you said.

No need to feel ashamed about this. I am wrong too. I am probably wrong more often than you are. And I probably think I am righter. 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 anybody is going to be right about everything—or even most things. You already accept this about 99.9999% of the human population. You know perfectly well that everybody else is wrong about a lot of things. And if you really think about it, you will realize that you are probably not the only person in the world who is always right

We all understand this in the abstract. We even understand it retroactively and can remember any number of things that we got wrong in the past. I am willing to bet, however, that you can’t think of a single thing that you are wrong about right now. None of us can. The minute we realize that something is wrong, we immediately revise our beliefs to be right again. This is just how human cognition works; we can’t imagine ourselves being wrong.

Unless we can. Unless we can manage to work against our evolutionary programming and entertain, as a very real possibility, that we are wrong about important things. And I mean really important things. The sorts of things that we build our lives around and use to make our existence meaningful.

For people of faith, this includes questions like, “Does God exist?” “Does God speak through any particular set of texts or people?” “Is there a life after this one?” and “Am I doing what God wants me to do?”

I believe things about all of these questions. But I know that I am probably wrong, and maybe spectacularly so. I know that I’m not supposed to be. If I were faithful (so I have been told), I would have a rock solid testimony of these things based in a kind of knowledge that transcends science or reason. But I don’t. And even if I did, I do not have any grounds to stand on to say that this way of knowing things is superior to others. Of course, I could certainly be wrong about that.

Which leads me to what I referred to in the title as “the Crisis of the Church.” By “the Church here, I mean something broader than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I mean the whole Body of Christ in all of its Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Protestant, and Restoration organs. We are all having a crisis, or a situation that requires us to make decisions before circumstances make them for us. And the Crisis has to do with members of the Body who, for whatever reason, do not match our ideas of what this life, or an afterlife, should be like.

This has always been the challenge of the Church, though it has come in different forms. In our era, the crisis usually concerns issues of sexuality and gender expression–human beings with dignity and unique gifts who need to be embraced by the Body of Christ but whose very existence challenges ideas about gender and sexuality that we believe to be either natural or eternal.

One argument that I have heard a lot recently goes something like this: “God wants everybody to be happy, and living a sinful life will make people unhappy/condemn them to damnation/make them ineligible for the Celestial Kingdom/ or some such thing. Therefore, the way to REALLY show love for people is to condemn their lifestyle/excommunicate them/pass laws against them/& etc.

I would suggest that the greatest need for epistemic humility arises when we attempt to balance the apparent, this-worldly needs of a human being against their supposed metaphysical needs in a world to come. Because, if we happen to be wrong about the metaphysical stuff, we end up hurting an actual person for no good reason. And we end up failing to exercise charity–a duty that we know we have in this world–in order to fulfill some injunction that we think we have in the next.

And, before you ask, yes, I am very willing to admit that I could be wrong too. I am willing to accept that risk. I am willing to stand before God and defend myself for accepting people on their own terms and treating them with kindness and compassion, even when scriptures and prophets and anything else suggested that I should condemn them and vote against their rights. I am willing to accept the moral consequences of being wrong.

Are you?


  1. Paxton Hernandez says:

    Thank you so much for this. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. You’re going to take all the fun out of Fast and Testimony meeting. If people can’t claim to know for a certainty about some things, well, I’m just saying.

  3. Gina Holder says:

    Yes, I have been spectacularly wrong about many things in my life and have watched the LDS Church modify beliefs and policies about a number of things in my life and even admit to being wrong about Blacks and priesthood deprivation.
    However, I have to live my life according to some moral code and some outside source of experience such as prophets and scriptures. I do not believe either to be infallible but know I probably will not be able to determine their errors during my lifetime.
    We speculate a lot within the Church and tend to assume what now exists will remain so in eternity or will be completely changed. The diseased will be whole, the mentally ill will understand clearly and life will be what it should be. But sinners here will remain sinners there. Do we really know what part of our sexuality is eternal if it differs from the norm here? Do we know what part of our male/female role definitions will be upended there?
    We need greater charity but I question whether we should be swayed from the arguments I keep reading about being on the right side of history. No one was more convinced they were on the right side of history than the Soviets with their imaginary Communist paradise for workers or the Nazis who would share the glories of Germanic civilization with the world.

  4. I’d put this as a corollary to the whole “motes and beams” bit. We should be spending more time examining the sins and failings we view as inconsequential (or even non-existent) in our own lives which others can easily see.

    Humility to not just see your failings but to actively look for them is a hard thing to work on.

    For me, being transgender has been my most major thing for me to keep in mind. I believe I am female. I believe the impressions I have gotten confirming this. But I could be completely wrong, getting to the afterlife and finding that I am male after all. Am I prepared for that eventuality?

    I suppose the question that comes to each of us is to what level do we take this? Do we search for things that are “dealbreakers”, insisting that our understanding is either right or we want no part of it? Painful or not, when we will be confronted with realities we don’t like, can we step forward with humility or will we just stop playing?

  5. Michael Austin says:

    Gina, I would suggests that “history,” for both Marxists and Fascists, plays the same role as “God” does for religious people. It is a metaphysical construct that people think they understand but really don’t.

  6. We could possibly be wrong, yes. But society tends to reward who think that they are right and make bold assertions of such, and use whatever evidence they can cling to vindicate themselves. This is getting to be more the case in this sort of post-truth era that we are entering. People seem to be more assured of their rightness. The LDS church has a vested interest in appearing right. It hates to admit that it was and is wrong on some things, fearing that it will appear weak before its followers. It plays a role as a leader, so it has to be cautious about admitting mistakes.

    On the church, having a sort of unsureness about it, as you suggest we do, would likely mean having a lower level of commitment to it. In most areas of life, having greater certainty usually means more proneness to action, and having less certainty means slower action.

    FActs not Feelings says, I too am an Intellectual Dark Webber who enjoys a good veiled trans-bash and SJW-bash. I mean, if we start identifying transgenders as women when they were born men, it is obvious that this is a slippery slope to people to just start identifying themselves as diabetics all over the place (of course, 84 million people in the US are thought to have pre-diabetes, so this could become a thing). Oh the horror. Thank God for those brave, brave intellectual dark webbers standing up for free speech against those awful SJWs trying to shame us for trans-bashing. If we don’t maintain a gateway platform for crypto-racists, conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis to express their ideas, who will? I mean that is what free speech is all about, right? Making sure that extremists’ views are aired on a regular basis.

  7. A serious question, Michael, not meant to challenge your point, but to refine it. You write:

    I would suggest that the greatest need for epistemic humility arises when we attempt to balance the apparent, this-worldly needs of a human being against their supposed metaphysical needs in a world to come.

    Does not the need for epistemic humility also arise when we attempt to articulate our own, or others’, “apparent, this-worldly needs”?

  8. This is great. I especially love your brief discussion of “tough love”: The idea that if we really love someone, we will condemn their behaviors that could damn them. It reminds me of people on my mission (and some relatives, too) who condemned me for my Mormonism. And they did it with absolute love in their hearts, too. I mean, if you really love someone, you can’t let them burn in hell, can you? And yet, our relationships are hurt by this. Could they be right? Could I be wrong? Sure. But if they are wrong, then they have damaged our relationship for no reason.

    “[I]f we happen to be wrong about the metaphysical stuff, we end up hurting an actual person for no good reason.”
    That was my favorite line.

  9. The final paragraph belies that fact that your conceptual epistemic humility is in practice a cover for tactical nihilism.

  10. Jared Livesey says:

    This is why Alma counseled his followers that they do not accept as teachers, neither rites from, people who do not keep the commandments of Jesus Christ (Mosiah 23:14).

    For the blind cannot lead the blind; shall they not both fall into the pit?

  11. I vacillate between being afraid to commit to a particular moral stance because I lack information (and it might be not my job to solve a particular problem), and willing to accept the burden of being wrong because it allows me to behave in a way that aligns with my moral sense of rightness.

    What I really want, though, is to have real conversations with real people who are as willing to admit that they might be wrong as I am. *sigh* I am exhausted by the certainty of others. Not convinced, not envious, just so, so tired.

  12. Linda Kulwicki Crawford says:

    I love everything about this. The great challenge of our mortal existence is our quest for discipleship of Christ. In a very real sense, discipleship requires us to transcend our experience, our culture, our dependence upon sources we have not brought to the Lord and humbly reconsidered as we are enlightened by the Spirit. As Paul would put it, the challenge is to allow Christ to inhabit our hearts and intellects and to decide, moment to moment, person to person, how to love. His grace enables that charity. We misunderstand scripture, we misspeak, we misinterpret; we fail to explore symbols and archetypes. We give creedence to opinion over revealed truths – and we are perfectly able to receive revelation for ourselves. We believe rules pre-empt the Atonement, and we set limits upon that Atonement. Long story short: there are two commandments I am to follow. They revolve around charity. I am not possessed of it. That humility allows me to see how we are all beggars, all in need. Focusing my energy on that reality, rather than the false superiority of the rule book, keeps me where I need to be, spiritually speaking.

  13. I concur with your approach. I try to live my life assuming that I will be held accountable in some form of afterlife, while simultaneously assuming there is no afterlife for anyone else. With these assumptions, how I treat others is really, really important.

  14. Michael Austin says:

    Russell, great question. I would say it epistemic humility is always a good thing. But these three things, I think, are either qualitatively different, or quantitatively different to a very, very high degree: 1) Knowing what we really want or need in this life; 2) Knowing what another person really wants or needs in this life; and 3) Knowing what God wants or needs in any life. The crucial question, I think, involves ignoring 2 for the sake of 3. If somebody is thirsty and wants a drink, then, I think that it would be very difficult to argue that the person did not want or need a drink. But if someone said that they were depressed and wanted a gun to kill themself, then I would probably feel OK about giving them something other than a gun.

    So, there are judgment calls, as there always is when humans are involved. But I think it is crucial that we are actually exercising judgment that is based on what is best for a person and their actual needs. When it becomes unjustifiable, I think, is when someone is dying a thirst and we give them a Bible. In that case, we are substituting our belief about what God thinks for any real assessment of another person’s needs.

  15. Bill, I’d be curious where you read the nihilism in Mike’s approach. Frankly, it seems almost the opposite to me: less nothing matters than things matter very much, but we might be wrong about what matters. That is, Mike is laying out a deeply moral framework with which to interact in a deeply moral, incredibly important, but definitely imperfect, world.

    My cards on the table here: I’m with him on this. I may well be wrong about lots of things, so I think potentially erring on the side of love of neighbor is probably the way to err.

  16. “Does not the need for epistemic humility also arise when we attempt to articulate our own, or others’, “apparent, this-worldly needs”?”

    To build on Michael’s answer, you can differentiate his 1 (knowing what we need), 2 (knowing what others need), 3 (knowing what God prescribes for everyone) over at least two factors: (a) the degree to which making associated judgments essentially required by life, and (b) the degree to which one bears or shares the consequences of humbling mistakes.

    1-a is a very high degree: living involves some continuous individual reckoning with what is personally needed, and there’s are very high natural incentives in 1-b to set your epistemic humility close to the true boundaries of what you’re able to accurately reckon vs external wisdom/models others might offer you.

    2-a/2-b is a varying but degree: for children and other people who you bear responsibility for or whose happiness/fortunes you hold as dear as your own, there’s a modest degree of real investment, requiring some involvement and also demanding accurate assessment of your limits, which hopefully includes recognizing that others have more direct feedback about their experience and internal state as you do, and you have to balance that carefully with any models/wisdom you think you have. The larger the degree of separation — the less grief you’re going to feel when they come to grief — the more epistemic humility is required.

    3-a/3-b … the topic of what God prescribes is so big and broad and so often broached far outside any apparently requirement or real skin in the game that I can’t see but that it’s the one that requires epistemic humility the most. And yet…

  17. DoubtingTom says:

    Ugh. Some of the comments here still falling on the side of intolerance of others with the assumption of being right with God. That certainty is painful, especially knowing based on history that the moment the church changes policies, there will suddenly be certainty again but for the nearly opposite position. For myself, I’d rather err on the side of love and acceptance. I can stand before God with a clear conscience, look Him in the eyes, and explain myself. But I don’t think I’ll have to.

  18. Happy Hubby says:

    Simple and beautiful.

  19. Loursat says:

    What should come first: abstract principles (like religious doctrine), or lived experience? Should our love (for example) be based primarily on doctrinal reasoning about love, or should love start with our actual experience as we interact with others?

    When we talk about things like love, faith, hope, and obedience, we almost invariably treat these things as if they are, first of all, principles to be explained, distilled, and understood. From that point of view, it makes sense to force our experience to conform with the principle. What else are principles for, after all? Why, of course, principles are meant to set our lives straight!

    Slowly I have come to accept that this way of seeing things is backwards. It is better to live our religion first, and then to allow experience to shape our principles. Love (for example) is so much more complicated, more difficult, and more wonderful than any set of principles can express. If we rely on the principle of love to shape our experience of love, we will forever miss love’s fullness.

    I don’t suggest that we abandon principles and doctrines. These things are useful tools to talk about what is good. Let’s just remember that doctrines do not love us, and doctrines do not save us.

  20. Bill, how is striving to be kind and compassionate anything like nihilism?

  21. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    I am reminded of how, during the Prop 8 campaign, I had the overwhelming sense that a lot of the people working so hard to enshrine homosexuals as second-class citizens in California–and that is ultimately what the campaign was about; don’t kid yourselves–were going to feel awfully guilty about what they’d done twenty years down the road. Turns out, it was more like five.

  22. Michael, you’re better than this. Epistemic humility is a reason to question your own views and show maximal sympathy and honesty toward those you disagree with because the whole point is you might just be wrong and they might just be right. And yet you reduce the church’s teachings to a caricature. Who has been telling you to condemn anyone, or not to treat them with kindness and compassion? How about noticing the efforts the church has gone to to find common ground, or its support for anti-discrimination laws? What you say about epistemic humility would be more credible if you did so.

  23. @ C. Keen 11:50 pm:
    We have ample evidence of treating people shabbily based on very earnest (but ultimately speculative) pulpit pronouncements.

    -J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency in addressing a YWMIA conference in June 1946 about inter-racial marriage, said:
    “We should hate nobody, and having said that, I wish to urge a word of caution, particularly to you young girls. It is sought today in certain quarters to break down all race prejudice, and at the end of the road, which they who urge this see, is intermarriage. That is what it finally comes to. Now, you should hate nobody; you should give to every man and every woman, no matter what the color of his or her skin may be, full civil rights. You should treat them as brothers and sisters, but do not ever let that wicked virus get into your systems that brotherhood either permits or entitles you to mix races which are inconsistent.”
    In 1947, a Mormon in California named Virgil Sponberg wrote to the First Presidency, questioning whether “we as Latter-day Saints [are] required to associate with the Negroes or talk the Gospel to them.” The First Presidency (then consisting of George Albert Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) responded by warning against the “slippery slope” of desegregation:
    “No special effort has ever been made to proselyte among the Negro race, and social intercourse between the Whites and the Negroes should certainly not be encouraged because of leading to intermarriage, which the Lord has forbidden.This move which has now received some popular approval of trying to break down social barriers between the Whites and the Blacks is one that should not be encouraged because inevitably it means the mixing of the races if carried to its logical conclusion.”

    -“Now we are generous with the negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. but let them enjoy these things among themselves. I think the Lord segregated the Negro and who is man to change that segregation?
    It reminds me of the scripture on marriage, “what God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Only here we have the reverse of the thing–what God hath separated, let not man bring together again.”
    Mark E Peterson, Race Problems as they affect the Church, Aug 27, 1954

    -‘Negroes in this life are denied the Priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. (Abra. 1:20-27.) The gospel message of salvation is not carried affirmatively to them . . . negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom, but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based an his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of Spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate.’
    Bruce R McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p114

    This is a very small sample of over a century of evidence that reaffirms the need for epistemic humility, particularly in the face of “doctrinal” and “scriptural” certainty.

    @Michael Austin: Thank you for this eloquent message.

  24. -Interview w E. Oaks and Wickman:
    PUBLIC AFFAIRS: At what point does showing that love cross the line into inadvertently endorsing behavior? If the son says, ‘Well, if you love me, can I bring my partner to our home to visit? Can we come for holidays?’ How do you balance that against, for example, concern for other children in the home?’
    ELDER OAKS: Don’t expect us to take you out and introduce you to our friends, or to deal with you in a public situation that would imply our approval of your “partnership.”

    PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Would you extend the same argument against same-gender marriage to civil unions or some kind of benefits short of marriage?
    ELDER WICKMAN: It really doesn’t matter what you call it. If you have some legally sanctioned relationship with the bundle of legal rights traditionally belonging to marriage and governing authority has slapped a label on it, whether it is civil union or domestic partnership or whatever label it’s given, it is nonetheless tantamount to marriage. That is something to which our doctrine simply requires us to speak out and say, “That is not right. That’s not appropriate.”

    -“It would also be desirable to permit employers to exclude homosexuals from influential positions in media, literature, and entertainment, since those jobs influence the tone and ideals of a society.”
    -Elder Oaks, “Principles to govern possible public statement on legislation affecting rights of homosexuals” August 7, 1984

  25. @ C Keen:
    I’m sure many people feel that they are being “kind and compassionate” while historically supporting segregationist laws, actively campaigning against civil unions, encouraging workplace exclusions, or refusing to “deal with their son [and “partner] in a public situation” to avoid “imply[ing] approval of their ‘partnership’.”

  26. I know I’m right about one thing: Republicans are wrong about almost everything.

  27. Old Man says:

    And when in recent times has it been suggested that we should condemn the LGBT people for being LGBT? I sit in the temple with people who fit these categories. As they keep the laws and covenants they have made, they are as capable as I of living as an active Latter-day Saint. I appreciate how difficult it is for some of these friends of mine to remain active. But they do. And they don’t post their stories online or whine about it to the press. They know that they have trials and so does everyone else. Mortality is not fair and they have grown up enough to realize that.

    I believe that some LDS social liberals have developed a tendency to cherry-pick comments from church leaders to build an exaggerated “straw man” in place of the real church to increase their standing when they oppose “the Church.” Poor JD had to run clear back to 1984 to dig up that Oaks quote.

    But is this battle even real? Is the Church going to come after you because you treat LGBT folks kindly in social settings? Because you listen to people? Because you vote your conscience? I think not.

    But there is a greater challenge out there for social liberals. You also have to be kind to LDS social conservatives, your fellow LDS brothers and sisters. You have to carry their burdens. You have to listen to and understand THEM. You also should not argue against or vote against their rights.

  28. it's a series of tubes says:

    Thank you, Wally, for proving Michael’s point to eloquently.

  29. Nancy, I’m with you. I think we ought to offer our best understanding of truth on matters but be simultaneously seeking more–and we can only expand what we know by engaging with people about ideas we don’t currently know or support. I like what Hugh B. Brown said in 1969: “there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth [I would say our current knowledge or convictions of truth] should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers — that we in fact have a corner on truth. For we do not.”[8]

  30. Series, think of Wally saying that ironically

  31. @ Old Man 9:21

    How do you think we got from 2006, 1984, 1954 to today?

    At the very least, it was faithful agitation and counseling together with a degree of humility. It was people like Dr. Bill Bradshaw, an emeritus professor at BYU, presenting the significant research on the biologic etiology of the gay, both publicly and privately to general authorities, to counter their consistent pulpit messages otherwise (and still continuing today in some areas). It was people like Eugene England, who directly questioned (then Elder) Joseph Fielding Smith’s certainty in 1963 that it was necessary “for a faithful Latter-day Saint to believe that black men were denied priesthood because of their activities in the preexistence.” It was people like President Uchtdorf, who reminded us that we thwart the revelations of the spirit when we prevent new truth from passing through the massive iron gate of our doctrinal and scriptural certainties. And it was actually the people who sit next to you in the temple, who “fit these categories,” who consistently challenged the certainty of others within and without the church about the gay. I interact with many of them regularly. Contrary to what you may feel (or prefer), they aren’t just sitting quietly. They give talks, they share their experiences, they give firesides, they bear testimony, they counsel with bishops, stake presidents, general authorities.

    Allowing a degree of humility in our own certainties is the only way to open our own iron gate for new light and knowledge. Counseling together gives us that opportunity.

  32. As the OP mentioned, it’s significantly easier to admit that “they were wrong about that in the past.” The challenge is to consider what we are wrong about today. It’s hardly a straw man argument, since if SCOTUS had not ruled in 2015, the church would likely still be fighting against (even) civil unions today.

    @ Old Man: Additionally, let me present another quote:

    “We are confronted by a culture of evil and personal wickedness in the world. This includes:
    The increasing frequency and power of the culture and phenomenon of lesbian, gay, and transgender lifestyles and values.”
    Pres. Oaks, BYU Hawaii Devotional, June 11, 2019

  33. Let me present another:
    “How do you help a young man or young woman who comes in and says “I think that I’m gay”?
    Elder Perry: Give them association with manly things, strong men that represent the ideal of relationships, a man who is vigorous and knows the power he holds.”
    February 15, 2014

  34. There are many more. A majority of them uttered weekly by bishops, stake presidents, and other individuals and local leaders who have the most direct influence on LGBT youth in the church.
    I bring up quotes like this to emphasize that there are certainties still today among the leadership, local and general, that affect and direct statements, interactions, and practical policies.

    To reiterate the OP :”the greatest need for epistemic humility arises when we attempt to balance the apparent, this-worldly needs of a human being against their supposed metaphysical needs in a world to come.”

  35. Hi JD,
    I completely agree that faithful thinkers have approached leadership and sparked inspiration on a number of issues which has led to a variety of changes. But then, you went back to cherry-picking quotes. Why do that? I do not expect leaders to speak in a consistent fashion on a topic which is obviously fluid and controversial. And the context of those quotes needs to considered as well. The Church’s position has grown more nuanced. Do church leaders condemn people for their perceptions of their sexual identities? No. Do leaders condemn all for their actions in regards to failing to live the law of chastity… their lifestyles and values? You bet.

    The $100,000 question that no one wants to broach is this: “Should LGBT members live the law of chastity as taught by the Church leaders and scriptures?”

    I am willing to stand before God and defend myself for teaching and encouraging my LGBT friends to keep the law of chastity as taught by the LDS Church. I don’t shun them if they fail to do so, but they know and understand my loyalty to those laws and covenants, one of which is charity. But our charity and kindness does not obliterate all other Gospel teachings and laws. And a charity which neglects reverence for God’s laws and Gospel values is no charity at all.

  36. Michael Austin says:

    “The $100,000 question that no one wants to broach is this: “Should LGBT members live the law of chastity as taught by the Church leaders and scriptures?””

    With all respect, Old Man, I do not believe that this is the $100,000 question. Rather, the key question is, “what should I as an individual, and the Church as an institution, do if people do not live the law of chastity as defined by the Church leaders?”*

    If the answer (personally) is to shun them, hate them, stay away from them, or deny them friendship, then, I would say, the answer is wrong because it privileges something that we may very well be wrong about at the expense of exercising our duty as Christians,

    If the answer (institutionally) is to excommunicate them, disfellowship them, refuse to baptize them, refuse to baptize their children, or cut them off from the Body of Christ, then I think it is the wrong answer, for exactly the same reason.

    One need not abandon one’s theological ideals in order to fully love and fellowship those who do not meet those ideals. One need only recognize that none of us are actually living up to the ideals of virtue that our religion calls us to, and we are supposed to give each other love and full fellowship anyway.

    *And not necessarily the scriptures, since they are all over the place in their definition of sexual morality–from polygamy, to concubinage, to celibacy. There is no coherent scriptural “law of chastity” that anyone can point to, though there are proof text to support a number of different versions.

  37. @ Old Man
    Thank you for that response. To bring us back to the OP’s central concern, a lack of humility has led to significant problems in the way we treat others. Indeed, a certainty of the way things were in the pre-mortal existence and the way things will be in the post-mortal existence has led us to make statements, enact policies, and pursue political campaigns that have been flagrantly false and/or demonstrably damaging.
    I feel that:
    1. Your comment about the date of my quotes have implied that it is only in our history that certainty/lack of humility has promoted problematic beliefs and treatment
    2. Your comment about cherry picking seems to suggest that:

    A: Elder Ballard, in all other times, doesn’t believe that masculine exposure will help a kid worried that he is gay. (Data shows that the absentee father theory/lack of masculine influences has no significant influence over whether a child is LGBT) (The context was a question and answer. I included the whole question and his whole answer.)

    B. That Elder Oaks, in all other times (other than 1984) has been an advocate for allowing employment of LGBT individuals as teachers, in the entertainment industry, or any profession that is influential to society.

    To reiterate my point, I’m sure many people feel that they are being “kind and compassionate” while historically supporting segregationist laws, actively campaigning against civil unions, encouraging workplace exclusions, or refusing to “deal with their son [and “partner] in a public situation” to avoid “imply[ing] approval of their ‘partnership’.”

    President Clark perfectly states we should never hate anybody, and immediately follows that up with an argument against “break[ing] down all race prejudice.” If you feel this is a cherry-picked quote, I’d be happy to hear quotes from you from the majority of the Quorum of the 12 and the First Presidency in this time period that advocated against segregation laws, and advocated for civil rights policies that we fully uphold today. (Pres. Hugh B Brown was one of the few during this time period). This is an example of their certainty leading towards bad beliefs and policies (i.e. racism, segregationism, even divinely approved racism). We can (mostly) freely note this problem today in the Church, decades after the fact.

    Advocating “kindness and compassion” on one hand, while campaigning against civil rights on the other is hardly an inherent good. If you feel that this happens only in the past, or that doctrinal certainties can exist in other areas except doctrinal issues surrounding the gay, I’d be happy to hear from you,
    1) the date when we stopped allowing certainties to drive policies,
    2) and the other issues to which doctrinal humility is applicable.

    I’m honestly curious. The OP suggests that a worthy goal is introspective humility, PARTICULARLY in those areas where we have “doctrinal” and “scriptural” certainty, especially when it collides with the testimonies of a group of people.

  38. Putting the religious aspects of this to one side, my professional experience is that those who actually admit that they don’t know all the answers–except maybe occasionally–tend to lose trust and business. For whatever reason, most of us are drawn to those who are super confident in their pronouncements, rather than those who will definitely get it right, but will have to check first. This is true even when the confident people are often getting it wrong. It’s bothered me my whole career, but at some point I got good at looking confident, making pronouncements I wasn’t sure I could back up, and then going back to my office and figuring out whether I was right. I am convinced I wouldn’t be in business if I didn’t. There’s something in our collective psyches that craves being around people who seem highly certain of themselves.

  39. Michael Austin says:

    jimbob, yes, what you say is a real thing. It is one of the reasons, I suspect, that natural selection programmed us to suppress uncertainty. People who project confidence are generally rewarded more than people who do not.

    In my own career, though, I have found that there is a small path between indecisiveness and humility that permits one to act decisively and project confidence without entirely abandoning the epistemic humility that I am talking about. I have to act quickly a lot in my work situation (I am the provost at a small liberal arts college). I supervise several hundred people, and they don’t want to see me wavering and agonizing over every decision. But they do want to see me asking for input before I make decisions–consulting them, accepting their expertise, acknowledging my own limitations, and being willing to abandon a path once it is clear that it is not moving in the right direction. Decisiveness and conviction are not exactly the same thing, though they overlap a lot. One can be very decisive without actually having any confidence in one’s decision. And one can be absolutely convinced of something and still unable to manage the social and institutional impediments to decisive action.

  40. To be clear, I’m grateful that there are consistent messages for individuals to be “kind and compassionate.”
    It’s taken us decades to just get here.
    I’m grateful that we have gone from the First Presidency supporting racist segregationist thinking and policies to President Hinckley condemning racism in any form.
    It’s taken us decades to just get here.
    I support an introspective humility, more than being okay just being “kind and compassionate” – but an evaluation of what policies we support (political and otherwise), our interactions with individuals who “fit these categories,” and our very beliefs about the nature of “the other.”

  41. @jimbob @Michael Austin
    Side note: Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Dr. Amos Tversky, and Dr. Paul Slovic, have done fascinating explorations of certainty/uncertainty and cognitive biases.

  42. <<>>

    Well, if we can’t “expect leaders to speak in a consistent fashion on a topic which is obviously fluid and controversial,” then I suppose it’s necessary to concede that the answer may well in some cases be “no.”

    Part of the epistemic humility here includes recognition of not only one’s own limits when it comes to correctly judging how moral principles should be interpreted and applied… but the limits of church leaders and perhaps even the scriptures themselves. *That’s* a $100,000 question. To the extent we assume they are perfect guides (or ourselves perfect interpreters), epistemic humility becomes difficult or impossible (and yes, the reverse is true if we assume they’re useless or exactly wrong, but this is not the same as reckoning with either the general possibility or specific demonstrations of their limits).

    And it goes deeper than even the question of whether our oracles are reliable. It goes to the heart of another $100,000 question: *how* do you engage someone who, in the best judgment available to you, is on a course that’s contrary to your gospel understanding?

    D&C 121 could be one path to an answer: you shouldn’t do it by appeal to authority (and perhaps you even *can’t* do it by an appeal to authority). We often interpret that as one’s *own* office/authority, but there’s no given reason it doesn’t apply to invoking the authority of others. And it’s easy to see that someone who can only point at the words of others is running the hazard of functioning as… a scribe, a copyist. Someone who can’t see inside a specific situation and fulfill a gospel obligation where “he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another.” Reaching for the recommended alternatives — always including persuasion and pure knowledge, whether or not one selects kindness and longsuffering or the ever-appealing sharpness — requires coming to any conversation like that with an understanding of dynamics beyond a given law, or persuasion that understands people, meets them where they’re at, and provides a handle by which gospel principles may be grasped is impossible. As is the possibility that a would-be preacher might, in the process of truly seeing another person doing their best in this regard, come to further understanding themselves.

    One more $100,000 question: when is someone else’s sin (as one may suppose), sex-related or otherwise, actually important to make a part of your relationship with them at all? Why didn’t John 13:35 read “by this shall men know ye are my disciples, if you’re sufficiently zealous in policing behavior you’re pretty sure is a sin” instead of what it actually says?

  43. (Aaand, apparently an angle-bracket quoting strategy isn’t one WordPress likes to play well with, first paragraph directly above is meant to be a pullquote from an earlier comment from Old Man)

  44. Parmenides says:

    It takes a lot of epistemic humility to learn to doubt an institution you’ve been taught to trust so completely that doubt was never even on the agenda, one that defined your world and its limits. This applies to the Church as much as to the right side of history. Maybe the church is wrong on its stance with LGBT members, maybe it’s correct, maybe it’s actually *too soft* and will be called to repentance for allowing pride parades in Salt Lake City. Maybe the last fifty years have showed that J. Reuben Clark was ill-informed and biased, and that we should consider how wrong he was when we hear apostles today; maybe in another fifty we’ll see nothing wrong at all about his statements, and use our current acceptance of mixed-race marriage as an example that we need to have epistemic humility.

    Much more terrifying than discovering that the Church is more bureaucracy than prophet would be the discovery that God is more Old Testament than New, a commandment to go and do the works of Nephi in Jerusalem, or of Joshua in Canaan. We can hope that morality has advanced since then, that we know a little more about God and man and ourselves, that the mind-bogglingly immoral stories of the OT were interpolations and that the gentle Christ is the only Christ, but we have been profoundly and disturbingly wrong about a spectacularly large number of things before.

  45. Sidebottom says:

    W>> “One more $100,000 question: when is someone else’s sin (as one may suppose), sex-related or otherwise, actually important to make a part of your relationship with them at all?”

    Bingo. With family and perhaps very close friends, but for most social interactions it’s both unnatural and inappropriate.

  46. Thank you Michael. Such a comforting and kind piece… and also uncomfortable and terrifying in that it tests and develops us in more difficult ways to use the Cascades of kindness or cruelty and attendant impacts as a judgement rather than a list of supposed verities.

  47. All I know is that I am going to be very surprised indeed if the afterlife is anywhere near as straightforward as we are prone to make it out to be.

  48. Here’s a Fb post from “Science, Critical Thinking and Skepticism”

    I know a lot of things.
    On last count, 347, to be exact.
    I know exactly 347 things. That’s not bad.
    The problem is that there are 379 Sextillion, 486 Quintillion, 567 Quadrillion, 876 Trillion, 912 Billion, 345 Million, 167 Thousand, 465 things to know.
    Damn, 347 things is not much at all when you think about it that way.
    I hope to know 348 things by the end of the week.
    That includes 25 old things that I thought I knew, but was wrong about, and an additional 26 new things.
    That also makes me wonder how many other things in that list of 347 I might be wrong about.
    Ignorance is not a virtue. It’s also not a crime. We’re all ignorant to the vast majority of things.
    Don’t take it personally.
    Just keep learning and try to know more, be prepared to defend or abandon those things you claim to know, and admit to all of the things you don’t know.

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