How do we ‘know’?

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April 11, 2010
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Today at church we had a testimony meeting.  This is a somewhat unique sermon style where the bishop invites the people in the congregation to come to the microphone and share their testimonies or personal witness stories.  They simply go up to the front if they feel like they should, and it is usually very uplifting and enlightening.  You can learn how the gospel impacts a person directly.

You’ll often hear phrases like, “I know that God lives,” and “I know Jesus died for my sins,” and “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”  Sometimes visitors come away from these meetings non-plussed by our uber-confident ‘knowledge’ of things.  It got me thinking.

Whenever someone says they know something, they are saying they have high confidence that their belief coincides with objective truth.  We do this all the time.  You say, “I just know the dentist is going to lecture me on flossing” because 1) he’s done it before and 2) you still haven’t been flossing.  Your previous experience and the evidence of your behavior lead you to this prediction.  There are many ways we gather knowledge; I’ll list a few here for illustration:

  • Personal experience (five physical senses,  sense of balance, pain, hunger, etc.)
  • Emotion and intuition (love, fear, instinct, etc.)
  • Experiences of others (advice, anecdotes, biographies, etc.)
  • Logical and mathematical proofs (a priori)
  • Found evidence (archeology, historical documents, paleontology, forensics, etc.)
  • Robust scientific experimentation that controls for all variables (physics, chemistry, etc.)
  • Scientific experimentation/observation that controls for variables where possible (sociology, political science, economics, etc.)

We all tend to have some level of confidence in these methods, some more than others, depending on many factors, but each of these can lead a person to say “I know…” if the learning method is compelling enough.  Even so, many would argue that none of the methods I listed above are capable of producing reliable knowledge of things as transcendent as God.  Archeological digs might lend credence to a religious belief, but surely not firm knowledge.  These critics have a point, so I would add one more item to the list:

  • Revelation from God

God speaks to His children in various ways.  He gave Joseph prophetic dreams that came true; He spoke to Moses from a burning bush (and also face-to-face).  He sent an angel to Mary to announce the birth of Jesus.  Joseph Smith saw and listened to the Father and the Son in a grove of trees.

To Joseph of Egypt, Moses, Mary, Smith and many others, those experiences were indisputable.  They had every right to declare, “I know” instead of “I believe,” and they did.

For most of us, though, the glorious visions and visitations of heavenly beings haven’t yet happened.  For us, God has promised another form of revelation: a personal witness of spiritual truths through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He is available to bear witness of the Father and the Son.  “By the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).  This witness may be less dramatic or conspicuous than an angelic visitor, but its convincing power may be even more sure than a vision (see Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151; 1 Nephi 17:45-46).  Because of His subtlety, it may take many prompts for you to hear the Holy Ghost and again many more before you trust them enough to say “I know.”  But it can happen.  This is how I know God lives and that Jesus is the Christ.

You can know, too.  Like other modes of learning, it won’t necessarily come in an afternoon of mild curiosity, but it will with dedicated seeking, knocking, and asking over the course of weeks and months and years.  Begin now and you will taste the deliciousness that is the knowledge of God.

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