Knowledge vs. belief, and the case for uncertainty

In Latter-day Saint culture, we've developed a cultural fixation on "knowing." This comes at the risk of stunting our own spiritual growth.

Tim Chaves
by Tim Chaves
September 30, 2018

I loved the two months I spent in the Provo MTC in early 2004. As a brand new missionary and at nineteen, I'd never felt so strongly that I was fulfilling the purpose of that season of my life -- and that that purpose would make a pivotal difference in the lives of many people I had yet to meet.

There's a certain ego to that feeling, to be sure. But I also felt like I was part of something larger than myself — a wave of truth sweeping across the earth of which I was just one drop.

Since I was on my way to serve in Uruguay, a significant portion of my time in the MTC was spent learning Spanish. Eleven other missionaries and I packed ourselves in miniature desks around the edges a tiny room for 10-12 hours a day, learning and studying.

One of my instructors had served as a missionary in Chile, and apart from being smart, humble, and wise, he spoke nearly flawless Spanish. I wanted to be just like him. I remember him writing on the chalkboard, within the first day we were there, the words we would use to bear our testimonies.

Yo sé que Dios vive. I know that God lives.

Yo sé que Jesucristo es nuestro Salvador. I know that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

Yo sé que José Smith fue un profeta. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Yo sé que la Iglesia es verdadera. I know that the Church is true.

Learning to say those words that I believed would change lives for the better was exhilarating. Each day I grew a little more confident in my Spanish, adding tidbits of complexity here and there as I progressed.

But as I found that I could say those words with more confidence, I felt less confident that I should say them.

Several weeks into my stay, I pulled my instructor aside and confessed something: I wasn’t sure if I could say “I know” about each of those things. Even though “I know that…” was the gold standard for a missionary testimony, I was uncomfortable because I didn’t feel that described how I felt. My instructor reassured me that if I worked hard enough to know for myself, then I would. And, he told me (and I give him a massive amount of credit for this), I didn’t have to say “I know” if I wasn't comfortable with it.

Of course, when everyone else is saying it  — literally dozens of times a day to practice their new language -- it's exceedingly difficult to not say it, too. So to maintain both my integrity and my social standing in that bubble-within-a-bubble missionary world, I convinced myself that I did know all of those things. I said those words thousands of times over the next two years.

Not knowing

In 2011 — seven years later — I said new words.

I said out loud, for the first time since those first weeks in the MTC, that I didn't know.

Driving home late one night next to Aubrey and with our two kids sleeping in the back, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I told Aubrey that I didn't know all of those things. I was terrified of what she might think. It was so, so hard to say it. Knowing, to me, over the course of those seven years and thousands of “testimonies borne,” had become a badge of honor. And I had to take it off that day.

It's hard to imagine this now, but I felt that not knowing might be my scarlet letter. Where would not knowing lead? And would it eventually mean the loss of my marriage? My family? My friends? Everyone I knew, it seemed, knew.

This article isn’t about faith crisis, though. In fact, it’s about the opposite. What I didn’t realize at the time I confessed my uncertainty to Aubrey was that in the spiritually difficult months and years that followed, my newfound lack of knowledge would lead me — for the first time — to find authentic faith.

The side-effects of knowing

Maintaining my “knowledge” during those post-missionary and pre-uncertainty years wasn’t always easy, and often, I discarded additional evidence, even evidence that was beyond dispute, to sustain that worldview.

As an example, I started reading Rough Stone Rolling for the first time in 2008, and put it down about 150 pages in (along with some read-ahead to the polygamy chapters). I stopped reading because I simply couldn’t handle the information. Either it was wrong (my hope), or I preferred to stay in the dark — I subconsciously recognized that, for me, continuing to proclaim “knowledge” about several long-held beliefs, and simultaneously accepting what I was reading as fact would have been untenable.

The painful and disorienting feeling that arises from simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs is called cognitive dissonance. I think for many members of the Church who find themselves in a situation like mine, it’s especially painful because we don’t think of our beliefs as beliefs — they’re knowledge.

If you’ll indulge a metaphor — think of a lever system, like a teeter-totter: on each side of the lever rest competing beliefs, and your brain is the fulcrum on which the lever pivots up and down. When one side goes up (in this analogy, let’s say going up means that belief gains credibility), the other must go down, because it’s incompatible with the first.

The question of whether or not God exists could be represented by one such lever system. The belief that God exists sits on one side, while the opposite belief, that there’s no higher power, sits on the other. When one has a sacred or spiritual experience they feel connects them with the divine, the belief in God side of the lever goes up, and, as a direct consequence, the other side goes down. The same occurs in reverse when one finds compelling reason to doubt.

Saying you “know” something is like sticking a wedge under one side of the lever. When the opposite side’s belief gains credibility, the first side isn’t allowed to go down, with the wedge stuck underneath it. Because you “know.” This dynamic — one side fixed and unmoving, and the other side straining upwards — creates a stress on the fulcrum (your brain) that it was never meant to handle. And the more credibility the new belief gains, the more that side of the lever wants to go up, the more stress is created.

That’s cognitive dissonance.

To alleviate that cognitive dissonance, we have two choices: stop allowing the new belief to gain credibility, or throw out the wedge. In my case, the first time I read Rough Stone Rolling, I chose the first. By ending my learning prematurely, I stopped my new belief from gaining credibility, and therefore temporarily alleviated my cognitive dissonance.

Stagnation followed. By preserving my “knowledge,” I had accepted the trade-off of not learning more. The brain-stress was less acute, but my intellectual progress had stopped completely — and with it, any genuine spiritual progress. With unanswered questions lingering, I found myself unable to move forward in any direction, knowing that the further I went in my traditional direction, the greater the pain would be when I inevitably had to deal with the evidence I had chosen to ignore.

The relief of uncertainty

Eventually, I determined that intellectual — and by extension, spiritual — stasis was too steep a price to pay.

Once I finally broke and told Aubrey I didn’t know any of those things, I took the other route. I kicked out my knowledge wedge. I allowed my beliefs to move freely as I read, found people here and there to discuss these ideas with, and continuously evaluated and reevaluated my position based on an accumulating body of evidence.

As this happened, I made an identity transition: that from a knower to that of a believer. In a culture that seemed full of knowers, this was, at first, highly disconcerting. The low point was letting my newfound habit of honest questioning slip to an aggressive member of the bishopric of my ward; in response, I was called in for an interview and warned I was putting my family in “danger.”

But as I came to terms with my new identity, I realized that regular and ongoing evaluation and reevaluation of evidence — and free movement of belief along a spectrum — was something I’d heard described in LDS scripture.

The famous passage on faith in Alma 32 describes, literally, an experiment: a deliberate sequence that starts with desire, then leads to belief, and eventually, knowledge.

Studying this passage, one thing stood out to me — a small phrase tucked into a verse whose other parts are quoted far more often:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

Ye cannot know of their surety at first. I find this striking. It’s not that you sometimes don’t know of their surety at first, or that it’s hard to know of their surety at first — you can’t know of their surety at first*.* As a young missionary and in the following years, I’d attempted to skip a step. I’d thought I could know right away — a scripturally impossible task.

Yes, the words in these scriptures allow for knowledge, and even seek it — but the bulk of those words are dedicated to a process — one of desire, belief, and experimentation.

I believe that it’s okay for our lives to reflect that ratio — while we may be certain of some things, most of our time is spent in the struggle along the spectrum of belief. And for me, that certainty is rare, and limited to a few bite-sized pieces rather than all-encompassing proclamations.

Subsequent verses make it clear that not only are faith and knowledge different, they’re mutually exclusive. Once you know, the scripture says, your faith becomes dormant. I’d argue that this is true whether one truly knows or simply thinks they know; either way, faith becomes dormant as its trademark process of uncertainty, experimentation, and growth stop cold.

In those early missionary years, I’d kept myself from that faith-developing process of challenge and testing because I held so tightly to the idea that I already “knew.” With neither true faith nor true knowledge, I was in a precarious spiritual and intellectual position.

Later, once the “knowledge” wedge was kicked out, and my belief lever was moving up and down freely on any number of questions, I started experimenting and evaluating.

I asked myself what I believed about God, what I believed about Christianity, what I believed about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I intentionally tested those beliefs, and unintentionally had those beliefs tested.

I let myself feel what I really felt about thorny historical issues like polygamy and the Book of Abraham, and on social issues surrounding women and the LGBTQ community.

I asked myself what role prophets had to play in my life, and how that conflicted or aligned with my own logic, conscience, and what I believed to be spiritual promptings.

And, after having been through all that, I found myself to be a believer.

An unorthodox one, perhaps. A doubtful one. A selective one. An imperfect one and very often, a struggling one. But after finally unburdening myself from the need to see God’s hand in my life to validate preprocessed proclamations of certainty, I saw that hand in unexpected places and at unexpected times. And I’ve found that because I no longer take those experiences for granted, each has become a treasure to me.

An unintentional side effect of this reexamination has been the fact that I can now “bear my testimony” without feeling horrendously awkward. The words that had been given to me culturally were never mine, and they never resonated with me. I would never say, on my own, that I “know the Church is true.” (For one thing, it’s never made sense to me to state that an institution — the grammatical equivalent of the US government, or Chuck E. Cheese — is “true.”)

My words are different — if someone asks me what I believe (or if h-e-double-hockey-sticks freezes over and I find myself up on the podium during fast and testimony meeting), I talk about my process. I talk about the experiments I’ve been through, the nudges I’ve had in the direction of faith, the cause-and-effect of living a Christian life and finding fulfillment and joy in my family. I talk about the times where I found myself despairing in the depths of an impossible situation, only to be heaved upward and outward by a hand much stronger than my own.

Those things, for me, are the foundation of faith. They’re real to me. No one gave me those words; they’re mine. They’re imperfect, and subject to doubt, and weighed against evidence — some of it highly compelling — on the other side. But for now, they’re where I’ve landed.

I don’t know. But for now, I believe.

Thanks so much for reading,

Tim signature
Tim Chaves
About the author

I’m an entrepreneur currently exploring the worlds of faith, technology, and philosophy. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2008 and Harvard Business School in 2015.

I co-host the Faith Matters podcast and write a newsletter here on timchaves.com.

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