Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I know what I know. Do I know what I don't know? And is it ok if I don't know?

In this post I plow some ground that I've been over before; thanks for you patience.

Last week I got a little heated under my collar at a discussion I participated in with R. Gary on a thread at Clean Cut's blog. Without discussing the particular point of doctrine, here's the gist:

R. Gary advanced an argument, based on statements of modern prophets. Fair enough. I sustain the prophets, too, and I'm ok with looking to them for wisdom and truth – in fact, I encourage it, and do it in my own life, too. (And I encourage you to do the same!)

But R. Gary and I didn't interpret the particular quotation in the same way. I asked questions. R. Gary responded openly and in a very straightforward manner based on his understanding. And I was offended that I felt he suggested that I was something less than faithful.

My characterization of his response to me was unfair. I should not have taken offense. R. Gary is as near as I can tell a faithful latter-day saint, and is welcome to his views, which he clearly has carefully studied out in his own mind and balanced against public statements of the brethren.

I admit it. I'm not as certain as R. Gary on the point of doctrine he cites. I agree that he has a list of quotations. And I understand where he is coming from. But I don't agree with his conclusion. We are simply not on the same page. That doesn't mean he is wrong. I know I'm not right, because I don't know the answer, yet. I am still very unsettled on the question.

But the conflict points out to me an interesting possibility in the church, and that is that if we take a collection of members, it's highly likely that we're in different places in our understanding of doctrine. And that should be no surprise, because we each have different experiences. Some are new to the church; others are more seasoned. Some have intense interest in finer points of doctrine. Others are content to lead good lives, keep the commandments, and not sweat the details of those finer points. Some put questions "on the shelf" for later consideration (I'm a fan of that method, by the way, as it's worked well for me in the past), and others just aren't interested.

I heard Elder Theodore M. Burton speak on my mission. He was a member of the Seventy at the time, and he suggested that our testimony is like a circle. He said if our testimony is small, the circumference of the circle – the border of our testimony – is also small. We know what we know, but we don't know what we don't know. As our testimony grows, he said, the border of our testimony also grows, and we become increasingly aware of what we don't know. And since we know more, we become aware that there is much more that we do not understand.

This teaching has helped me to keep questions that I've had in check over the years. I'm able to be comforted by what I do know, by past spiritual experiences, by the confirming witness that comes sometimes when I sit in sacrament meeting or in the temple, by the truths I've been taught from the scriptures, and by the confirming witness I have as I sustain church leaders.

That I have continuing questions about certain points of doctrine or history does not make me less faithful. For me, the presence of questions means that I am still seeking, still trying to learn, hopefully while doing my best to live the gospel as I should. If I know these things about myself, then I can also assume them for others who are still learning, too.

As for the last question in my title – is it ok if I don't know? I think so. After all, if I knew everything, there would be no need for faith.


  1. I've had people suggest, based on things that I've said or done (like supporting gay marriage) that I'm not faithful. I'm sensitive about it. To me, it's a perfect example of making a debate personal--at which point, it's really not a debate anymore, it's an attack. One thing I think we overlook, though, is that there's more than one truth out there. We can all be wrong, and we can all be right. These issues are complex.

    And, to answer your question, it's excellent to not know. Not knowing means you're acknowledging not knowing. It takes tremendous courage to say, "I don't know". The ones who know everything, and are certain of everything, are the ones you have to watch out for.

  2. CJ, thanks for your thoughtful comment (as always). My meaning here, I think, is slightly different from what your comment suggests.

    I mean to point out that while R. Gary has a distinct point of view, I am not as certain as he. I allow that he may be correct, but I'm not yet convinced, and he may, therefore be wrong but he may also be right.

    I suppose it's possible that one day I will decide and we will firmly disagree. Then that's not about my not knowing, it's about my knowing (or perhaps believing) something different than he does.

    Do you believe your different view on gay marriage, for instance, is because you interpret the words of the leaders of the church differently? If so, then maybe we're talking about the same thing.

    I think it may be difficult for some, especially when they've worked long on an issue and resolved it for themselves, to have someone articulate a different point of view. I have sometimes done the same thing, particularly with my kids, and it's not a very kind response.

    In any case, being right is one thing. Being "right" loudly doesn't necessarily have a lot of merit.

  3. I do interpret both the words of church leaders, and the words of the Scriptures, differently, I think, than some people, particularly on this issue. I actually wrote a book about it, although my agent claims it's a "second book", and I need to write something with greater appeal first. I can't imagine what could have greater appeal than learning about the Scriptures, but that's my bias talking--and a subject for another day.

    To me, the only clear definition of "right" is a fairly broad one: we're either following the golden rule, or we're not. My own reading of the Scriptures has lead me to believe that intention is more important than anything else--and, ultimately, being "right" in the intellectual sense can amount to a pyrhhic victory.