Doubt, rather than knowledge is most compatible with faith

Michael Vinson, of Salt Lake City, a master’s graduate of the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge, has a fascinating essay in the current issue of Sunstone. Titled, “The Crisis of Doubt in the Church,” it offers the proposal that “we formulate a new view of faith and doubt, one that recognizes the latter as an integral part of testimony.”

As has been mentioned in media reports, there is a trend of apostasy in the LDS Church, including “some of the most educated and highest income earners,” as Vinson relates from anecdotal sources. I’d add, citing anecdotal evidence, that many others are young adults who spent their childhoods as active members of the church. Vinson notes that a misunderstanding between faith, knowledge and doubt can hinder efforts to counsel members whose faith is tried and are seeking questions relating to doctrine or LDS Church history.

To get to the nuggett, Vinson is arguing that we need to give the acknowledgment of doubt more respect, and to regard it as a major component of faith, rather than a weakness. He writes, “The underlying problem is not the level of a member’s church activity but the fact that they have bought into a false dichotomy about the relationship between faith and doubt … suggesting that the effective exercise of faith requires that one have zero doubt.”

Vinson is on to something here. He quotes Alma 32:18, “for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe.” In short, we are commanded to have faith, which is something not known. “As Vinson writes, “… if the truthfulness of the plan of salvation and the Church can actually be known, then faith is unnecessary. But since faith is the first principle of the gospel (and therefore necessary), we can conclude that it is certain knowledge, not doubt, that is the opposite of faith.”

Vinson suggests that members of the church embrace a union of faith and doubt, as a way to “believe something” via faith rather than “know something,” which really doesn’t take faith. He argues, convincingly in my opinion, that “it is our emphasis of testimony as a knowing experience rather than as a faith experience that causes our angst.”

The author also cites Mark 9:24, as an example of faith and doubt being in harmony. “And straightway the father of the child cried out with tears, ‘Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’”

Knowledge, as well as perfection, are ends, not journeys. Faith is a journey that includes doubt and obedience. Christianity, and many other faiths, demand that we subject our will, and reason, to an unseen deity. In the LDS faith, we are asked to sustain men as senior representatives of Christ’s church. These are actions that cannot be proven. To say they can is deceiving. They demand faith. Even in times we may doubt there is a loving God or a man who speaks with God, I believe our faith in those things are more powerful than the rhetorical “I know” uttered for the same criteria.

If persons struggling with the claims of any religion, Mormon or otherwise, were told that these feelings are not a spiritual weakness, but a natural, and healthy, component of faith, there might be fewer apostasies. However, that requires tremendous patience, from parents, mentors, siblings and ecclesiastical leaders, such as bishops. Religious beliefs are so bedrock to many of us that to witness a loved one question those beliefs results in hostility. Even the late LDS prophet Spencer W. Kimball reached a point with his eldest son, Spence, a skeptic of Mormonism, where to maintain a relationship the father had to quit talking with the son about his church standing.

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25 Responses to Doubt, rather than knowledge is most compatible with faith

  1. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Yes, I suppose it requires patience, but what it really requires is trust.

    Trust that the person doubting and questioning is intelligent, sincere, and capable of making his own honest choices.

    Trust that the person is not trying to challenge your beliefs, but sort out his own.

    Trust that someone else’s doubt is NOT a challenge to your beliefs.

    Trust that the doubt is not motivated by sin or “losing the Spirit.”

    And most important of all, trust that your own faith has validity.

    That last trust is most telling. Why would a person have such little tolerance for another person’s doubt? The most obvious answer seems to be that the person has deep-seated doubts of his own that he’s afraid to face.

    It’s like seeing death forces one to confront one’s own mortality. Seeing doubt in others forces one to confront one’s own doubt. And if one does not want to confront one’s own doubt, one will be hostile toward other people’s doubt.

    So I see hostility toward doubt as a sign that the person saying “I know” maybe isn’t so sure he knows after all. He doesn’t trust his own faith.

    If your faith really is true, why fear people’s questioning and examining of it? Can’t truth speak for itself? Does truth require that you attack other people’s questioning to be true?

    • ScottH says:

      Very cogent observations. Doubt is a natural part of a believer’s life. We must all constantly determine how newly acquired information works with our personal faith view. Adjustments are often necessary and appropriate. This is part of the learning/maturing process. Each must work through this process at an individual rate and to a personalized destination.

      • Zen Wordsmith says:

        …”When in doubt, leave it out”…
        Or is that “We’ll Sing and We’ll Shout”.

        Knowledge relinquishes Belief, after reconditioning.
        The Sun will rise tomorrow morning, hence:
        This I know {BOM-ALMA 32}, and I need not
        have to believe in the consequences inherit with belief.
        Should the Sun not rise tomorrow morning, I
        have no one to blame, and I will start anew in
        the eternities in the long held belief:
        …”A passing of Earth and Heaven”…

    • Doug Gibson says:

      D. Michael, I agree with a lot of what you wrote. However, when it comes to a parent, or mentor, losing patience with someone they love who has turned from their beliefs, I don’t think — in most cases — the conflict that ensues is a result of the parent or mentor doubting their own commitments. It’s hard work to enter a stage of theology disagreement with a loved one, particularly when you watched that person grow, and utilize patience and follow the biblical advice that “a gentle answer turneth away wrath.”

  2. Alan Meyer says:

    Good response D. Michael. Questioning is often seen as an attack on faith by by those who have sold their thinking skills for a mess of proverbs.

  3. L. Rees says:

    It seems clearly evident that doubt is a part of developing faith. Alma’s discourse on faith surely allows for doubt as the reason for propelling a test which can develop faith. As a life-long member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I believe I have met few other members who don’t understand this. Until we arrive at a state of perfect knowledge, which is God’s state, we understand that we will struggle with doubts over those things we don’t understand or accept at times. Realizing this is our condition, why would we shun or condemn others who share those doubts or struggles?

    From my own experience, I have gained a knowledge that the spirits of those who have “died” live on. I do not need faith to believe that. But that doesn’t mean I have a knowledge of every teaching or principle of the restored gospel. Some I have gained knowledge of- many I am exercising faith in.

    The author states: “since faith is the first principle of the gospel (and therefore necessary), we can conclude that it is certain knowledge, not doubt, that is the opposite of faith.”

    Would it not be more accurate to say that certain knowledge is the culmination of faith? Faith is the “first principle of the gospel,” but that does not mean it is the last. Peter exercised faith in Christ being the Messiah, but then, as Jesus affirmed, he received the sure knowledge through the Holy Ghost. But having received that knowledge didn’t take away the need for faith that he, Peter, could follow and defend that knowledge. Or the need to understand and accept all the Master taught. Peter still struggled with doubts, and, as we, had to gain that further knowledge “line upon line, precept upon precept.”

    I guess I find it surprising that Vinson suggests members embrace a union of faith and doubt, as a way to “’believe something’ via faith rather than ‘know something,’ which really doesn’t take faith.” I would argue that most already recognize that union of faith and doubt as a way to eventually gain knowledge- that being the greater goal. This need not cause angst when we understand that is the path mankind has always followed in seeking knowledge of truth. Speaking of this, we read: “ Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will DO his will, he shall KNOW of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:16-17). (emphasis added)

    Seems to lay out a clear path to knowledge. However, for mortals, that path is not easy or without many pit-holes and foggy mists, thus the instruction to “hold onto the rod’ as we travel it. Faith keeps us holding on. That is why most of us, like that father of long ago, continually cry out “Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). After the Lord healed his son, the father had knowledge that Jesus had power to do this. Obviously that did not take away the need for the father to continue to exercise faith in all those things he did not yet know- such as whether or not Jesus was, indeed, the promised Messiah. And so it is, I believe, with us. We hold doubts, but are willing to exercise faith in the quest for knowledge. And hopefully we recognize that is how it is and always has been for others, and treat them as we wish to be treated “for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

  4. Bob Becker says:

    Many many moons ago, ran into Jesuits working at the Catholic church serving the Universty of Wisconsin. They spent much time in the Union Rathskelker talking with students over coffee or beer etc. And I recall their arguing that doubt, questioning was not only expected in young adults, it was a good thing because, without going through “a crisis of faith,” a period of serious questioning, your faith woudn’t be a very strong one. Just accepting without questioning as an adult what you learned by rote as a child was, they said, too easy. But if you went through a crisis of faith, and emerged as an adult believer, you would know why you believed as you did, and your faith would be strong. So they encouraged doubt, questioning, argument as a healthy thing in young adult Catholics, especially in college. That was, needless to say, NOT what parish priests were telling young people back in Holy Ghost Parish in Brooklyn.

  5. Neal Humphrey says:

    George Santayana -
    “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.”

    The “I know this [fill in whatever] is true” is merely a cant reflecting the old heresy of gnosticism, which the Church of Jesus Christ rejected in the 1st century.

  6. Neal Humphrey says:

    Speaking of the crapola that people think they can “know” something religious is true, the greatest doubter in the New Testament wasn’t the Apostle Thomas. The most spectacular skeptic was none other than John the Baptist, “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’” (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20).

    How did Jesus react to John’s doubts? Jesus said: “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John.”

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  8. Belief is synonymous with not knowing.
    Absolute knowledge is madness.

    I don’t believe, but I have many suspicions.
    The human heart will battle the mind; here, reason wins.

  9. Erick Kuhni says:

    This is all complete nonsense, frankly. First, Alma’s point was not about developing faith, but excerising what he called a particle of faith, about a “thing” (some gospel topic I suppose), so that the seed of faith can in fact grow into “perfect knowledge” about the “thing”.

    This is the new spin on Mormon epistemology that is making the rounds from the new intellectuals, such as the Given’s. The idea that somehow Mormonism isn’t about revelation in the form of Angels and visitations, but rather some kind of feel-good spirituality that plays well into eastern philosophies about duality (faith and doubt). But how does this rhetoric gel with the teaching’s that have been coming from Church leaders since the beginning. I googled “Mormonism, faith and doubt” and this was one of the first hits, from President Monson in the 2005 General Conference:

    “Remember, faith and doubt cannot exist in the mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other. Cast out doubt. Cultivate faith. Strive always to retain that childlike faith which can move mountains and bring heaven closer to heart and home.”

    It wasn’t so long ago that I was a missionary teaching from the standard six discussions that I have forgotten Moroni 10:3-5. The promise of Mormonism is a revelatory experience that leads to a “testimony”. There was never talk about embracing our faith and doubt.

  10. Midwinter says:

    I’m not a believer by any stretch of the imagination, but once, while I was in graduate school, I made a female LDS missionary very angry with me because she was insisting that faith = truth = knowledge and I kept trying to explain to her that doubt is a component of faith and that it always carries with it the possibility that the belief may not be true.

    She got very upset with me, and I didn’t really understand it then, as I wasn’t being difficult or argumentative. But given what Doug’s described here, now it makes a little more sense.

  11. Tom says:

    Not sure if I have doubt in my faith,
    or faith in my doubt.
    Without a doubt I have faith that
    it is one or the other.

  12. Wayne Dequer says:

    Very though provoking and insightful article and some great comments.

  13. Decider says:

    To me, the word FAITH is most meaningful when its expression is transformed from an abstract philosophical/theological ‘status’ that is self absorbed and too self-conscious, to a CONCRETE ACTION others witness, attest to, and are inspired by — especially when there exists some GREAT personal SACRIFICE which authenticates that FAITH.

    Doubt is ‘status quo’, quiet. unresolved, hesitant, morally equivocal and ambiguous.

    Faith and Doubt are NOT co-equals — NOT the Yin and Yang ‘solution’ that “Mormon Mysticism” seeks to offer the comfortable and entitled.

  14. Michael Huffaker says:

    I have felt for years that testimony meetings with their recurrent “I know…” statements are frequently very intimidating, discouraging, and even misleading to investigators, teens, and anyone who is honestly struggling with faith and doubt. Though the phrase “I know” may be accurate in some circumstances, I personally am much more comfortable with “I have faith in…”, “I believe that…”, or “I have a testimony of…”. I think there is a substantial amount of unacknowledged peer pressure to say “I know”, and the whole Church would be better served to somehow free its members from that expectation when they bear their testimony. Even Bruce R. McConkie, one of the Apostles who certainly had one of the strongest testimonies of Christ and the Church in the latter days, penned the hymn, “I Believe in Christ.”

  15. Medio Believer says:

    Paul Tillich tackles this in “Dynamics of Faith.” He spends a long time point out the weakness and inconsistency with our vocabulary. In our church, and in President Monson’s quote (I dare say), when believer’s use the word faith and say “I know” they are referring to the reassuring feeling that comes on an individual basis for all sorts of things. It is a type of personal knowledge…and it allows a person to say “I know.” We often call that Faith.

    But as Tillich points out (and several others on the discussion board) faith remains and unknown and therefore lies at the opposite of doubt. So when believers use faith so loosely, it is in a different context to the way others try and grapple with faith and doubt. This doubt embracing faith might be similar to Moroni’s treatment on Hope.

    • Michael Huffaker says:

      The way different people interpret the words faith, believe, know, doubt, etc. also plays a big part in understanding (or not understanding) what people mean when they bear testimony. Faith and testimony, at their core, suggest a witness or evidence of some type, that leads to some level of knowledge, faith, or belief that a certain spiritual principle is true.

  16. Mick Lee says:

    I’ve been hearing about “doubt as brother of faith” since I was 10 years old. (I am 60 now.) What I have learned since is that there is doubt and then there is doubt. Before we slip love notes to Doubt, beware. Doubt all too often turns poisonous and deadly. I would handle it as I would an industrial acid. It can be useful. It can also disfigure or kill you.

  17. Erick says:

    Let’s put a slightly finer point on it. Mormonism was ushered in with some pretty tall claims that go far beyond faith in the resurrection of Jesus, or God, or the Bible etc. Joseph Smith was at a point of uncertainty…of “doubt” you might say. Though he doesn’t use the word “faith” to describe this experience in his “official” history, he does seem to imply that he ahd some spiritual yearning’s, and some desire to affiliate. As every primary (LDS) child know’s, he was guided by a verse in the New Testament, which he interpreted to mean that God reveals answers. The sixth verse of James does encourage God’s petitioners to “ask in faith, nothing wavering”, but the Joseph Smith experience accords with Alma’s claim that faith is the catalyst of action by which both the believer and God operate upon in recieving/delivering revelation.

    The description of the First Vision, by Joseph Smith, speaks in terms of certainty, not in terms of faith…and this is the template that set the standard for future believers. For example, we have the story of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey recieving the Aaronic Priesthood from a literal visitation by John the Baptist. Oliver Cowdrey’s own words were:

    Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!

    A second story is that of the three witnesses. The claim is that the three men entered a wooded area, and then prayed sequentially (in faith) but nothing happened, until it was revealed that Martin Harris lacked the requisite faith. At which point he departs the company, and the three remaining men (Smith, Cowdery, Whitmer) resume praying only to have their faith rewarded by a literal visitation. A short while after, Smith and Harris repeat this process privately, at which point Harris musters up the needed faith and supports the experience (I’m not going into the actual historical problems, here, rather I’m making the point that the stories as presented by Smith in his “official” tellings fancies a particular model for religious validation). The three men are then “compelled” to sign an affidavit (the Testimony of the Three Witnesses) that makes no mention of “faith”, but rather states:

    “And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes.”

    We could go on to talk about the visions and visitations of others, the “miracles” of angels and Christ at the Kirtland Temple, etc, etc, etc. The sum point is that Mormonism was founded on a rather bold epistemological premise that faith was a rudimentary stage that must progress towards certainty through revelation. You completely strip Mormonism of it’s gut’s to take that away, which I am afraid is why the Given’s approach of faith and doubt sounds so…well…gutless!

  18. Doug Gibson says:

    When I reading Vinson’s Sunstone piece, and writing this blog post, I thought a lot about this previous post on one of Joseph Smith’s sons that I wrote almost two years ago.

  19. E.Wallace says:

    In my experience, “knowing” is integral to the church’s rhetoric regarding faith. It is the ultimate achievement. I have heard so many people unabashed claim that they know with absolute certainty that the church is true. I don’t expect that members will embrace the concept of doubt as a part of faith. Personally, I think that embracing the inevitability of doubt is realistic and would be reassuring to a number of the “thinking” members of the Church. But what do I know? (Aw, I think I know some people who contributed to your anecdotal evidence)! ;)

  20. Zen Wordsmith says:

    The [Church of Jesus Christ] didn’t reject gnostic [hindi]
    teachings and principals in {circa’ 02 CE}. Roman Church
    fathers scribed on, to a more “pure and undefiled” teaching
    of the Risen [Christ].
    This was made evident by the Apostle [Adidyus Jude Thomas],
    who along with [Jesus of Galilee], made known in latter-day
    translation as [Thomasian Christianity].
    The “craddle of civilization”, {primitive Rome} [Kashmir India]
    albeit its home.

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