Friday, December 26, 2014

I know the church is true

As a follow up post to this one, I wanted to dive deeper into one principle of religious belief that bothers many, especially in the age of secularism and pluralism, this idea of "knowing truth". It's tough in the age of secularism because we are forced to hold onto faith that at times comes into deep tension with scientific or historic evidence. Pluralism, because we hold onto our faith while we love others who hold onto theirs even as there are foundational contradictions between the two.  Before I dive into it, let me flush out a bit of what it means to have faith. First, from a very secular historical take on the life of Christ that so far I've only been able to get part of the way through.
"Religious faith and historical knowledge are two different ways of 'knowing.' When I was at Moody Bible Institute, we affirmed wholeheartedly the words of Handel’s Messiah (taken from the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible): 'I know that my Redeemer liveth.' But we 'knew' this not because of historical investigation, but because of our faith. Whether Jesus is still alive today, because of his resurrection, or indeed whether any such great miracles have happened in the past, cannot be 'known' by means of historical study, but only on the basis of faith. This is not because historians are required to adopt 'unbelieving presuppositions' or 'secular assumptions hostile to religion.' It is purely the result of the nature of historical inquiry itself— whether undertaken by believers or unbelievers— as I will try to explain later in this chapter."

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 132). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The idea here is that you can say you know something is true without having historical or scientific evidence that it is so. This knowledge is a statement of faith. Adam Miller in his book, Letters to a Young Mormon, says it another way:
"When your faith falters and you're tempted to run, stand up and bear testimony instead. A testimony is a promise to stay. A testimony gives form to your great faith, it gives direction to your great doubt, and it publicly commits you to the great effort of trying to live what God gives. It is less a measure of your certainty about a list of facts than it is a mark of your commitment to bearing truths that, despite their weakness, keep imposing themselves as a grace. In this way, bearing testimony is like saying 'I love you.' A testimony doesn't just reflect what someone else has already decided, it is a declaration that, in the face of uncertainty, you have made a decision. Saying 'I love you' or 'I know the church is true' commits you to living in such a way as to make that love true."
 I think for me as a religious person, both of these quotes resonate. I know that "my Redeemer liveth" is a statement of my faith but it's also an expression of my faithfulness to Christ as my personal savior. Mormonism raises the stakes, though. In the very first section of the Doctrines and Covenants, Joseph Smith comes out boldly:
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—
This isn't just a statement of faith in this church, it's also a statement of how it compares compares with all other religious institutions that exist. I'm not sure what to completely make of this statement. I heard Terryl Givens in an interview once say that this was the language of Joseph Smith's day, that every church was making claims to exclusive truth in this way.

This is possibly true, but this expression of exclusive access to revelatory truth, or maybe that's too strong a phrase, but the idea that Mormonism has something within it missing from other faiths, that sort of self-confidence gives Mormonism some amount of spiritual power that would be missing without it.  It was through that confidence that Joseph Smith was able to, from nothing, build a church that covers the globe and that through humble beginnings, many thousands of early Saints were willing to risk their lives to move the church across the plains to begin something amazing in Utah. It's this confidence that inspires thousands of young men and women to give up several months of their prime years to share the gospel on missions. Or to spend countless hours in service in our temples, or to give up 10% of their income to the church. This sort of confidence in one's faith is obviously not unique to Mormonism, it's what motivates evangelicals to go on missions to convert Catholics in Spain. It inspires Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

There is definitely danger in this kind of self-confidence that can lead to prejudice, abuse and obviously war.  I think rational thought and an understanding of science provides a good check on unfettered faith, forcing the faithful toward humility. I think pluralism does the same. Having deep relationships with those whose faith contradict your own puts a check on faithful over-confidence.

But there is something beautiful about many people expressing a deep internal faith in one's religion to a degree that leads them to sacrifice their time, talents and resources to build up this faith while at the same time developing love, respect and relationships with others who are doing the same thing in their own faith.

I know this church is true. It's my own statement of faith. It's a commitment of faithfulness. It's an expression of love. But at the same time, I honor others who lay claim to a faith that takes them on a different journey than my own.

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