Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Being an Agnostic Mormon

Love the title, but I wouldn't immediately say that about myself, because I hate labels...

Being agnostic is formally the very most honest way to be a Latter Day Saint.  I say this with all sincerity and accuracy.  Consider the following quote:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
(Paul to the Corinthians, first Epistle 13:9-12)
The most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained thereinLatter Day Saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles existing, as they are made manifest from time to time.
(Joseph Smith, History of the Church, v5 p215)
Joseph Smith started his journey with the First Vision, condemning creeds and their professors, not because they said wrong things -- they did not, not really -- but because the creeds declared an orthodoxy, and that orthodoxy would get in the way of honest investigation of truth.  The professors were corrupt by virtue of the fact that they claimed to know that which was not knowable.  To say that you know something when you don't know it is both dishonest and corrupt, because it contaminates one's ability to see truth when it comes along 'from time to time'.

To say "I don't know" can be the best and is often the most honest answer.  To say "I know" and then to say either "...the church is true" or "...the church is not true", is not an accurate statement.  While some might defend the statement 'the church is not true' because the church says things it knows to be false (justified by the "milk before meat" idea), the reality is that the church addresses, through prophecy, the vast unknown.  Paul's use of the word "prophecy" is interesting -- it's a method of filling in the gap between what we "know in part" and that vast unknown.  Prophecy, as applied in scripture, is that which is given by inspiration, to the mind and heart of the prophets -- it's not a perfect, flawless process -- it's the ability to accept in faith our best, inspired guess.  It is not to know a thing. -- and in recognizing our 'not knowing', one can best sort out the truth of things.

Alma defined faith in this way: "Faith is not a perfect knowledge of things, therefore if ye have faith, ye hope for things that are not seen, but are true."  What makes faith different from belief is the explicit aknowledgement that I do not know, but am willing to trust and try something out (act on it).

Alma lays out a speciic test of any given principle: either it grows or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, and you've given it a chance, you can, appropriately, throw the seed out.  What's important about the Alma 32 experiment is that it is specific to a given principle -- "In that thing" -- and not the entire garden.  Too often, the idea to test an unknowable belief, or an entire belief structure, is not a valid test, because it goes beyond what one can know with a simple "yes, it grows" or "no, it does not grow" answer. 

For example, to test the question, "Is the church true", by Alma 32 is fraught with problems.  Being a vast set of beliefs, it is an untestable proposition by Alma 32 -- it's not specific to a specific thing, because the truth of the church is mixed with human judgment and sometimes profound errors.  So, in exercising the experiment, one can either feel good about it -- it grows, or feel nothing -- it doesn't.  If I feel good, and then conclude 'the church is true', then there is a danger of accepting a blanket orthodoxy containing both truth and the human judgment and profound errors in the church as being 'true' as well -- not wise to do.  If I don't feel good about it, the I might conclude 'the church is not true', and then reject things that really are in fact useful, helpful, and uplifting.

Instead, Alma suggests testing a specific thing:  I can test to see if a specific teaching or practice has value to me, and in so doing, I get a comfort with that principle or practice.  I can ask the question, in faith, "Does the Book of Mormon contain truth and relevant teachings for me and my family?".  It's a specific question, and in reading the book, discovering the value, and then praying about what I've read, I can come to a knowledge that the Book of Mormon has significant value to me, and teaches truths relevant to my life.  I exercised faith by reading the book because I recognized that I did not know if it had value.  I did not cast out the book because of my unbelief, in whatever form that may have taken, but I gave it a legitimate test in faith.  As a result of my test, I came to a specific piece of knowledge -- the book contains valuable, relevant truths for me.  Test complete.  Faith exercised.  Knowledge gained.  Alma 32 works in the specific. 

Alma asks, is this all there is to know?  And he says "no, you've only exercised faith in that specific thing".  You don't know at this point, whether the book is historically true.  You can ask that question, but if you don't put it to a test, including both mind and heart, acting in faith on that thing.

What does that mean when it comes to whether the book is historical?   It means openly and honestly probing whether the book indeed has that history.  If it turns out that my test in faith does not result in mind and heart agreeing that it's history -- then I have to recognize that I do not know (unprovable), or I know it doesn't (be careful here -- requires proving a negative absolute).   As long as something is not proven to be false, I can still hope, I can still have faith, but I need to recognize that I still don't know.  So many of the Church's teachings are in this category.  Faith continues, because we recognize we don't know -- and that's just fine.

This process of defining what we believe through our own experience is actually at the core of both Joseph Smith's teachings (as noted above), and as well, in the temple endowment, in both the creation as well as garden of eden dramatization -- man was to learn through his own experience to distinguish good and evil -- and not partake of the predefined tree of orthodox knowledge of good and evil.

Unfortunately, the church through "correlation" has managed to create the appearance of an orthodoxy, enforced by things like the 14 fundamentals and other social pressure. Nothing could be further from the original purpose of the church -- I hold hard on the idea that there are no creeds -- no orthodoxy -- and only the challenge to discover "all true principles existing." In my humble opinion, suspending naive belief that too early asserts knowledge, and recognizing that we truly don't know, is the very best way to discover truth

As Lao Tzu said, "Not knowing is true knowledge".

So...perhaps being a Mormon Agnostic is not such a bad thing, when we really, honestly, don't know.


  1. Hey
    Joseph Smith was an idiot who went out in the forest and ate magic mushrooms and had a great trip and thought he saw God mormonisn is the great illusion

  2. Hey
    Joseph Smith was an idiot who went out in the forest and ate magic mushrooms and had a great trip and thought he saw God mormonisn is the great illusion

  3. Hey. This really rings true with me. I appreciate your honesty. Too often the culture of an area leads members to believe that there is an issue with not asserting that they know something. Sometimes it feels like if I don't say "I know," then I'm rejecting faith. That's not true. There is a true beauty in admitting that we don't know something. It's honest and will eventually lead to even more accurate knowledge. Thank you for the article.

  4. Thank you for commenting!

    It's interesting to read material I wrote years ago. While I completely agree with the sentiment in the article, I have since avoided the term "agnostic", because it implies an indifferent or even an adversarial attitude toward "knowledge"/gnosis.

    I embrace Cartesian methodical doubt, in that we should question the very basis of our beliefs, but deconstruction without reconstruction can be needlessly destructive. The work of faith suggested in Alma 32 is to explore what we know and don't know, so both knowledge and "not knowing"/faith are essential. This confirms Paul's statement, "for we know in part, and we prophesy in part."