Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Quote Know Quote and Believe

In order to continue a few thoughts from the post I referenced last, I have observed over the last several months a tendency to put the word "know" into quotes, as if it isn't possible to know spiritual truths. Usually, it is mentioned how those bearing testimony to the truthfulness of a Gospel concept use the word, ie. "I know the Church is true and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God." While I'm not going to argue that the word know is probably overused and poorly applied in many cases, I think it is a common form of error to claim that someone cannot know a spiritual truth in every practical sense of the word.

It seems to me that you have a choice when discussing the use of words and semantics. You can get overly ponderous in the denotative meanings, or you can arbitrarily grasp for connotative meaning. Even though I hate resorting to dictionary definitions, I don't think I can avoid it in this case. Merriam-Webster defines the noun "know" in several ways:

  1. to perceive directly : have direct cognition of

  2. to have understanding of (importance of knowing oneself)

  3. to recognize the nature of : discern

  4. to recognize as being the same as something previously known

  5. to be acquainted or familiar with

  6. to have experience of

  7. to be aware of the truth or factuality of : be convinced or certain of

  8. to have a practical understanding of (knows how to write)

It seems those who claim that no one can really know things of the Spirit are looking at definitions 1) and maybe 7). They disingenuously claim that you cannot know (or most people don't know) because any claim to perceive something directly is negated by another's claim to perceive the opposite, and that you cannot be aware of the factuality of a spiritual truth for the same reason - that another may claim an opposite factuality.

This argument is entirely erroneous and fails to understand the nature of truth. If Jane is blue/yellow colorblind and sees the sky as a flat shade of blue-green, she can testify that she knows the sky is flat. If Sally can see all the shades of blue, from pale to rich, in the sky, she can testify to the gradation of color. One person's testimony does not negate another's. Mary has a doctorate in spectrophotometry. She can not only explain that there is a perceptual gradient, but also explain how it is completely based on perception and not a physical change in the makeup of the atmosphere. She can testify to a deeper truth about the sky's color. That still does not negate or invalidate the testimonies of Jane and Sally. They are still valid testimonies. Furthermore, even Mary, with all her knowledge and qualifications, can not necessarily explain the base nature of light. There is always more truth to discover.

At the risk of getting overly philosophical, the interesting thing is that intangible truths can be drawn from all three testimonies. Each of them have something to contribute to the understanding of Truth. That is why Christ taught (and teaches) at the level His disciples could understand. He was able to take truths they all knew—such as the size of a mustard seed—and draw out still greater lengths of actual knowledge. Their previous knowledge was not invalidated any more than a roof on a house invalidates the basement footings.

Most cannot understand how seemingly diametrically opposed testimonies can both be true without resorting to relativistic theory—that different things are true to different people. A better way to say it is that different people see things differently. It is a subtle parsing of meaning, but picture it as though Truth was a plant. Many would like to say that there is a different plant for each person. Rather say that there is one great plant that we all see a little differently. Once we have gained all knowledge and all understanding, we will realize that it is the same plant. We all have something to gain by sharing another's understanding.

Be careful if you feel the urge to put "know" into quotes. Just because you do not know something, doesn't mean another person does not. You are revealing far more of your own ignorance than of your superior understanding of truth.


  1. I have been touched by the faith of some who are very uneducated and may be below average in intelligence. And how I wish I could exercise faith like them at times.

    I like your very complete breakdown of knowing. I know I haven't made any comments for a time. I hope things are going great for you. --Barb

  2. Also, I wanted to give you a quick invite to a forum that I mentioned before. It is helamans-army.com. If you would be interested in participating or blogging there, send an email to Helaman. The site has been around for a few years but just recently reopened. We are very open to LDS themes. It is a nice place to associate with friends.-Barb/bkb

  3. Thanks for clarifying. I won't be so nervous to assert my knowing for fear of someone kicking sand in my face.

  4. I think this is a really great post. It's a great continued discussion. I think I've had some similar thoughts and I think you're really onto something.

    One thing that really makes sense to me is Alma 32, when he compares “the word unto a seed”. That little experiment has helped my faith--in some things-- grow into certain knowledge.

  5. Barb - Thanks! It's great to see you around again. I was just thinking about you the other day, too.

    jendoop - That's exactly how I feel, even thinking the way I do, I can't help but be nervous to speak up. I think the point is to speak up anyways, even if you do get the sand kicked in your face, y'know?

    clean cut - Thank you for the vote! I think one of the things that bothers me often is the hypocrisy of those who worship equality. So often they see that, much like "no child left behind" their efforts at equality only bring down the shining stars, when allowing them to shine blesses everyone. If someone truly knows, not only can no one else tell them they don't know, but many don't see how another's knowledge blesses them. Allowing someone else that confidence and faith can only serve to lift those around them.

  6. Hi silverrain,

    To me it makes a great deal of sense just to accept someone's assertion that they know something is true. But then do you then need to assess the depth or quality of their knowledge? Or do all statements of knowledge have equal value? I can hear two people testify in fast and testimony meeting that they know the church is true, and one will be compelling and convincing while the other will fail to resonate with me. It almost as if they both know, but one really knows and the other just knows. Does this make any sense? I don’t like to discount another person’s claim to know, but something inside of me makes an evaluation as to the value of the assertion, and while I don’t deny the knowledge, I assess it and utilize the assertion accordingly. Am I being unfair?

    PS - I wish we were in a Sunday School Class together. I would enjoy discussing the gosple with you.


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