Greetings, readers—and I’m pleased to announce the launch of AskJewishGirl by long-time AMG reader Sharon Goldstein. Please stop by and offer Sharon a hearty mazel tov, and send her a question while you’re at it. Meanwhile, the women of AskCatholicGirl are tearing it up. Don’t miss their posts last week on why Catholics might stick around despite conflicts with and misgivings about the Church. Moving stuff, and instructive to each of us who wrestles with our faith.
Now, for this week’s question:
I’m a newcomer in a high-density Mormon area. Often, I hear people say, “I know the Church is true,” “I know Heavenly Father loves me,” “I know that families are forever.” I’m not a religious believer, but I can at least respect a comment that begins, “I believe in God,” or “I believe God is love,” “knowing” these things strikes me as nonsense at best, potentially destructive at worst.
Do Mormons have a different definition of “knowing” something that non-Mormons. Do they “know” these religious issues the same way they know their addresses or their names, for instance? Do you view this as a problem or am I making a big deal out of this? As you can probably tell from my question, I find it totally creepy.
Thanks so much for your blog. It’s helping me come to grips with my new reality.
Welcome to the Book of Mormon belt! Enjoy the superior white bread, gorgeous outdoor scenery, and easy-to-navigate street numbering system. And rest assured that you’re not alone in your discomfort with the robust use of the phrase “I know” in Mormon communities.
A few weeks ago, I was on a Mormon Matters podcast with Phil Barlow, a truly marvelous human being and Chair of Mormon Studies at Utah State University, and Phil said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
Food for thought, that. And still, professing certainty is an important feature of Mormon religious life. Attend any chapel service (yes, they’re open to the public) the first Sunday of every month, and you’ll see Mormons of all ages line up at the podium to share stories from their lives—some faith-related, some, well, sort of faith related–and then conclude with the words, “I know the Church is true.” It’s what people say in when they’ve had spiritual experiences they interpret as confirmation of the rightness of Mormon doctrine and the power of Mormon institutions. But I’ve been in wards where kids who can’t even color in the lines yet are led by the hand to the podium as their parents coach them, whispering in their ears, to say that they too “know the Church is true.”
I tend not to use that particular phrase. By personality, I’m more of an “I believe” kind of person. But I also tend to avoid assessing what other people actually know or don’t know and trying to hold them accountable for it. I have enough matters of my own to sweat out in the back pew. If someone says, “I know the Church is true,” I don’t make it my business to second guess them.
But as someone who studies language and culture, I am alert to the history and context of that particular phrase. For specific cultural values are at work when Mormons opt to say, “I know the Church is true.” The value of professing certainty is deeply rooted in Mormon history. The founding story of our tradition is that a young Joseph Smith wanted to know which church to join and so after studying his scriptures went into the woods and prayed to ask God directly. His prayer was answered with a visitation from God, who directed him not to join any existing churches. Smith wrote, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.”
Since then, it’s been an against-the-odds story for Mormonism. We are a minority faith, and a young one at that. Some of what Momons believe the rest of the world thinks is pure “nonsense,” as you put it. So professing that one “knows the Church is true”—in addition to being a culturally-traditional mode of expressing belief—can be a way of expressing solidarity with the whole Mormon enterprise. It’s like saying, “I’m in—100%.”
Mormons being humans, using the phrase “I know the Church is true” can also be a way of strengthening one’s position in the community. It is a way of bonding with other Mormons and perhaps even establishing a bit of authority or status in the community. A very natural inclination, that is.
What else is happening when someone says, “I know the Church is true”? The whole gamut of human emotions. Some people are saying it because they are happy, or sad, or lonely, or angry, or hungry for attention, or feeling uncertain and hoping that stating certainty will get them through another day. Yes, PJ, there is a whole range of human longing and aspiration bound up in that apparently simple phrase: “I know the Church is true.”
Given the chance, there are Mormons who will state their beliefs another way. There are Mormons who will say, “Life is difficult and confusing, but I find comfort in prayer, and I’m humble enough to say I could be totally wrong, but I sure feel like good things have come to my life through prayer, and that’s enough reason for me to place my hope in the existence of God,” or “Mormonism has taught me a great deal, and it’s been an experience I’ve wrestled with, but after a great deal of wrestling, I find myself still here—still learning—still serving.” Those tentative voices tend not to be the ones that rush the pulpit on the first Sunday of the month. But these voices have always had a place in Mormonism. Stick around, dial down through the loudness of certainty, and you’ll learn to tune into the quiet ways in which a good number of Mormons—being human beings, after all—live their faith with as much longing, nuance, struggle, and uncertainty as anyone else.
Readers, what do you think? Are you an “I know the Church is true” person? Or have you another way of stating your beliefs?
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