Saturday, May 21, 2011

To Be More Humble: The Danger of Being Absolutely Certain

As I considered the idea of becoming a little more humble and a little less proud this week, I thought back on other things I have contemplated and about which I have written over the last few years.  I want to focus today on something I believe strongly - that we often focus so much on knowledge and knowing that we devalue what, in a way, is the pure heart of humility.  Sometimes we focus so much on knowing that we forget about the real power and, I believe, enduring need for faith. 

“Faith” is not “knowledge”. It is the substance of things “hoped for” - the evidence of things “not seen”. Faith is based on “hope” - a desire for something that cannot be seen or understood fully. “Certainty” is the perceived end of faith - the desired outcome most people envision. It is to be sure of something to such a degree that it is expressed most often in terms of knowledge. “I know this” and “I am certain of this” are seen generally as saying the same thing, especially within religious communities.

One exercises faith when one is uncertain; one does NOT exercise faith when one is certain. When someone is absolutely certain, he stops seeking greater understanding.  Such a condition leads the person who is certain to stop exercising faith, since she believes there is nothing with regard to that particular concept she doesn't "see" - that she has sufficient "evidence" to be certain and not need "further light and knowledge".  If even a prophet (Paul) could write that he saw "through a glass, darkly" . . .

I get more than a little bit frustrated by the insistence that everyone can know everything, since even our own sciptures say that some have the gift to know while others have the gift to believe those who know. (I think there is another category of people - those who never feel like they know and can't believe those who believe they know.  I admire DEEPLY those who find themselves in that situation and still manage to exercise faith [hope in what they can't see] despite their inability to actively believe.)  My biggest concern is the idea that faith and uncertainty cannot co-exist - that if I am uncertain of something, then I lack faith. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

I would posit that we all must, by definition, exercise faith until we are certain - and then hold onto that previous faith again if we lose certainty. Since none of us can be certain about everything imaginable, every one of us needs faith in something all our lives. I believe each of us can be certain of some things, but I also believe we can be certain of many things and still be incorrect - at least partially.  If we are certain of everything, I believe we either are ignorant or delusional. If we never reach an acceptable level of certainty, then we need to accept a life of searching ("seeking after these things") - following whatever principles and people and politics and religion we feel provide us with the highest degree of certainty we can obtain OR the particular vision in which we want to have faith.

Finally, there were at least two times when I think it is safe to say that Jesus struggled mightily - because He didn’t understand and didn't want to accept something. (In the Garden, where He asked if the cup could be taken from Him and on the cross when he cried out and asked why His Father had forsaken Him.) In these cases, he seems to have been uncertain about some aspect of the Atonement and had to exercise faith: specifically, that He would be able to do it and then that He would be able to do it alone at the very end.

If the Savior and Redeemer of the world didn't understand some things right up until the end of his life - if even he had to exercise faith in at least two instances, I believe it is important for each of us to accept that we also need to accept uncertainty and not assume our visions and views and beliefs are objective truth that need no more light and knowledge. 

I think nearly everyone would agree with that, in theory, but there are SO many times when we forget it in reality - when we allow ourselves to be proud and miss amazing opportunities for spiritual growth and enlightenment by being absolutely certain.


Thomas Parkin said...

I agree with everything you've said, Ray.

And yet I also think we have crossed over a line in the church where we have come to undervalue knowledge. The Holy Spirit is still an agent of knowledge. What we have always failed to teach is the difficulty of the path that leads to knowledge. We have taught that it is a simple matter of prayers offered and answered, with maybe a little research mixed in, when it is actually a life long and beyond process that engages fully all of one's parts: physical mental and spiritual. We are only saved as we are on the path that brings us to knowledge. We can't be saved in ignorance, etc. Faith is a necessary place holder.

Papa D said...

Amen, Thomas. Amen

Jared said...

Not all testimonies are the same. They can vary in degree and intensity depending on the the person. The Lord likens kingdoms to the sun, moon, and stars. The same might be said of the variety testimonies found in the church.

Therefore, the degree of certainty expressed by those bearing their testimony will differ.

It appears from your post that you are annoyed by those who bear testimony with certainty. It appears you feel those who do so lack humility.

In my opinion, a person who bears a testimony in church with certainty needs to provide a reason for their certainty. Just emphasizing the words "I know" isn't enough.

Additionally, a person who possesses a certain testimony knows something, but that doesn't mean his faith is dormant. It appears even the Savior exercised faith, even though the son of God.

Your thoughts.

Papa D said...

"It appears from your post that you are annoyed by those who bear testimony with certainty. It appears you feel those who do so lack humility."

Read the post again, Jared, and parse it ONLY for what the words I used acutally mean. I write very, very carefully - specifically in order to try to avoid the kind of mis-readings your comment above typifies. I think (hope) you will get a VERY different meaning than your original reading if you read it one more time without any assumptions and take from it ONLY what it actually says.

I have a rock-solid testimony of the Restored Gospel that is baed on experiences that are every bit as powerful and real to me as yours are to you. What I am saying in this post, however, is that I have areas where I am not "absolutely certain" of some things - and that I am like Paul in that regard. In some areas, I still see through my glass, darkly - and if I ever get to the point where I believe I understanding all the details completely about everything, in that moment I will have tripped into pride and abandoned faith and humility.

Again, please re-read the post. It simply doesn't say AT ALL what you "assume" in the quote above.

Papa D said...

I probably should have added "about everyting related to a particular concept" or "about everything". That's what I meant by "absolutely".

For example, if someone is absolutely certain / knows that God exists, that is completely different than knowing everything about God and the nature of God.

I appreciate and agree with your clarification, Jared - but I only will add that seeking for further light and knowledge is a sure sign that someone is NOT "absolutely certain" about everything - AND that I know FAR too many people, including members of the LDS Church, who are so sure of their own understanding that they simply are unwilling to listen to and learn from another's perspective. Too many members say, for example, something like the following: "That preacher (or author or average person) isn't LDS, so she doesn't understand the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - so I don't have to listen to her or see if I can learn from her."

I don't agree with that, at all, especially since we are told we should "seek ye out of the best books" and that "if there is ANYTHING virtuous, lovely or of good report, or praiseworthy, we SEEK AFTER these things." There is NO source qualifier in that Article of Faith, and I agree with that lack of qualifier.

Not understanding that basic Mormon belief (that there can be good, lovely, praiseworthy things after which we should seek outside our own denominational borders, if you will) is not uncommon, unfortunately, and it is that attitude this post addresses. I might have made that clearer, but I wanted to keep it more general than justd that application.