On Holland’s Epistemology

Microsoft Word - Holland Talk.docxElder Jeffrey R. Holland gave an unusual talk–entitled “Lord, I Believe”–this past conference.  I use the word “unusual” because it was compassionate, thoughtful (and thought-provoking), and faith-promoting. . . literally, it promoted “faith”–as in ”belief” rather than “knowledge”, as in ”I believe” rather than the more common Mormon assertion of “I know”)–as an acceptable spiritual stance.

The talk was heartfelt, funny at times, and moving in places. The chatter in the Bloggernacle seemed almost uniformly positive.  I chuckled at the comparison of dwelling on spiritual deficiences as a way to increase faith to stuffing a turkey through the beak .  Here’s a YouTube link.  Here’s a link to the conference page on the church website (Holland’s talk was in the Sunday Afternoon Session).

A lot of church members are uncomfortable with the emphasis Mormons place on spiritual certaintly.  Many of these members, in my experience, seem to sense that their personal spiritual experiences–if they’re honest with themselves–aren’t enough to endow them with the same level of spiritual knowledge and unshakable religious conviction they perceive–often inaccurately–in other members (and church leaders).  For many of these members, Holland’s talk, I suspect, felt like a warm hug. . . (like the hug Holland wanted to give to the young man that confessed that–if he were honest with himself–could only say “I believe” instead of “I know”).

[Quick aside: About half way through the talk Holland explicitly states this: "Let me be clear on this point.  I am not asking you to pretend to faith that you do not have.  I AM asking you to be true to the faith you do have." This is a repudiation of Packer's position--outlined in his infamous talk, "The Candle of the Lord"--that you SHOULD pretend to faith that you do not have, and that claiming to know something that you do not know is an act of faith that will be rewarded.  Packer's talk is on my list of The WORST Talks Ever.  I was glad to see Holland taking a more sensible position.]

But (you knew a “but” was coming), even thought I appreciated the talk, there are at least two problems with it.  In the first diagram (in the upper left), there are two question marks. The first question mark is next to the arrow that leads from a “A Desire to Believe” to Mormonism.  Stop for second and consider this step.  How does one get from a spiritual yearning to Mormonism?  Think about the diversity of world religions.  Think about culture and the way it is transmitted.  Ponder the power of familial ties, socialization, the influence of parents, relatives, friends and family.  Considered in this larger context, exercising a “desire to believe” will only lead to Mormonism if one is born into a Mormon context.  The vast majority of the time, it will lead to other faiths.  As Desmond Tutu put it:

“My first point seems overwhelmingly simple: that the accidents of birth and geography determine to a very large extent to what faith we belong. The chances are very great that if you were born in Pakistan you are a Muslim, or a Hindu if you happened to be born in India, or a Shintoist if it is Japan, and a Christian if you were born in Italy. I don’t know what significant fact can be drawn from this — perhaps that we should not succumb too easily to the temptation to exclusiveness and dogmatic claims to a monopoly of the truth of our particular faith. You could so easily have been an adherent of the faith that you are now denigrating, but for the fact that you were born here rather than there.”

Leaving out this complexity is the first problem with Holland’s talk.  It’s a relatively minor sin of omission.  The second problem is more serious.

What happens when individuals–as an act of faith–choose to accept and live a religion?  As Mormons, we know what happens inside Mormonism.  Living the religion often leads to spiritual experiences, a sense of belonging and purpose, and sense of communion with fellow members.  These are positive things.  For many members, these outcomes confirm the validity of their choice–their act of faith–to live the Mormon faith.

This brings us to the second question mark in the diagram in the upper left (and the second problem with Hollands talk).  What do the positive experiences of living the Mormon faith mean?  What conclusions should a devout Mormon who has personally experienced the positive results of Mormonism–spiritual experiences, sense of belonging and purpose, and a sense of communion–reach based on these outcomes?  A good way to answer this question is to ask what happens to the 99.9% of other human beings on the planet who choose to exercise their faith–their desire to believe–and choose to accept and live other religions (e.g. Lutheranism, Adventism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)?  As it turns out, adherents of other faiths experience the same things Mormons do (spiritual experiences, purpose, communion).  What should the hundreds of millions of adherents of other faiths conclude from their experiences?

Although Holland spoke compassionately about belief, he was clear what the “real” goal is–it is spiritual certainty (and he held himself up one who has successfully reached that place of certainty).  There is a wide chasm, however, between choosing to live a religion and claiming to have absolute knowledge that one’s religion is the only “true” or “valid” path to God–and this chasm can’t be crossed based solely on one’s own experiences.  Because individuals can’t directly compare spiritual experiences, and therefore have no reliable method for determining if one religion (or religious experience) is ”more true” than another, faith is the last subway stop.  The train doesn’t go any further. 

I liked the story about the 14-year-old boy that hesitantly admitted to Elder Holland that he couldn’t say–yet–that he “knew the church was true” (but that he believed it was).  Holland’s response was profound: “I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, and an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for ‘only believing.’ I told him that Christ himself said ‘be not afraid, only believe.’”

I wish Elder Holland would have stopped there.

Or, if he felt he had to say more, I wish he would have said this: “Don’t let anyone tell you that belief isn’t enough.  Belief is not a consolation prize.  It’s not a stepping stone to certainty or knowledge.  Belief, by itself,  is beautiful and complete.  Belief, my son [putting a hand on the boy's shoulder for emphasis], is all there is.“ 

In an early A Mormon in the Cheap Seats post, I asked these questions: “Can a religion be built on faith?  Just plain faith?  Faith that isn’t looking for a promotion, or a pay raise, or that isn’t on its way to becoming something else?” I don’t know the answer to that question.  I do know that the underlying epistemology of Holland’s talk isn’t the way I experience religion (see the second image below).

Microsoft Word - Holland Talk.docx