About a week ago, I came across an interesting quote from a talk President Hinckley gave during the October 1981 General Conference (Faith: The Essence of True Religion). He quoted a journalist who had recently given a speech during which the journalist had said that “Certitude is the enemy of religion.” (I’d be fascinated to see the full text of this journalist’s remarks, or even just learn his name.)
President Hinckley’s response is challenging for someone like me. After all, I started out blogging at Times and Seasons with a series of posts about epistemic humility. (1, 2, 3, 4) I do not believe uncertainty is a worthy end in itself, but I do believe that accepting the limits of our ability to know is an essential aspect of healthy faith because it enables us to grow and change. A belief that is certain is cemented. This is a good thing when you’re right, but a bad thing when you’re wrong. And—since it’s just as hard to know when we’re right about being right as about anything else—we should pour that concrete sparingly and with care.
This ambivalent attitude towards uncertainty is what makes this talk a challenge for me. In the talk, which President Hinckley says is the result of “much reflection,” he praises certainty wholeheartedly, beginning that section of his remarks by saying that “Certitude, which I define as complete and total assurance, is not the enemy of religion. It is of its very essence.”
He goes on to state that:
Great buildings were never constructed on uncertain foundations. Great causes were never brought to success by vacillating leaders. The gospel was never expounded to the convincing of others without certainty. Faith, which is of the very essence of personal conviction, has always been, and always must be, at the root of religious practice and endeavor…
Without certitude on the parts of believers, a religious cause becomes soft, without muscle, without the driving force that would broaden its influence and capture the hearts and affections of men and women.
When I first encountered the quote, I immediately went to work trying to synthesize it with my beliefs. In terms of the general thrust of the remarks, I think they are certainly true. Unless we have strong convictions, what can we hope to accomplish? As humorously ironic as it may be, it is my conviction that acknowledging uncertainty improves our faith that leads me to write about it. (I’m certain about uncertainty. Get it?) So I fully accept what I see as the central idea: that we must embrace and maintain a firm conviction in core principles. For believing Mormons, those core principles include the divinity of Jesus Christ and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.
As for the specific conflict between my qualified embrace of uncertainty and President Hinckley’s explicit embrace of certainty and certitude, I came up with an example of why I thought the rhetorical conflict might be misleading. After all, it is possible to imagine a variant of the talk that went something along these lines:
Great buildings were never constructed by timid architects. Great causes were never brought to success by self-conscious leaders. The gospel was never expounded to the convincing of others without assertiveness.
The thing is, timidity, self-consciousness and a lack of assertiveness can all be seen as synonyms of humility. I would say that my invented quote has a great degree of truth, but to take it as an attack on humility would be to take it too far. (Or in the wrong direction.)
Our faith requires us to be humble. It also requires us to be bold. There is a tension there. The tension may only exist because our language is insufficiently careful about the differences between the negative and positive aspects of the word “humility,” failing to differentiate between good humility (which we are obligated to seek out and practice) and bad humility (which would interfere with our duties as disciples). I think this is probably correct, and that—from a Godly perspective—there is no real tension. But even if it’s an illusion, it’s an illusion we have to grapple with.
If that line of reasoning is correct, then it is possible that alongside the good humility / bad humility tension there is a good certainty / bad certainty tension as well. Good certainty is the willingness to be unambiguous in our embrace of core principles for which we have pursued and won a spiritual witness, and to hold that witness through thick and then. Bad certainty is an overconfidence in the extent of our ability to know things. Good certainty is humble trust in the revelation of God. Bad certainty is cavalier trust in human wisdom. Any discussion that uses the word “certainty” is bound to misfire with at least some in the audience when the speaker has one meaning in mind and the listener has another.
It just so happens that the good certainty / bad certainty tension has become more of a sore point for some of us Mormons these days than the good humility / bad humility tension. It may also be that people naturally think of good humility first when they hear the word, and that they think of the bad certainty first when they hear that word. In either case, though, it would be possible to embrace President Hinckley’s meaning and still believe in epistemic humility. It would be possible, for example, to pursue a living and vital faith in the core principles of the Gospel—a faith of conviction and vitality—while still maintaining a careful humility when it comes to other religious and secular matters.
I was fairly comfortable with this resolution until I went and read the full text of President Hinckley’s remarks. When I got to the end, this is what I found:
To those who vacillate, who equivocate, who qualify their assertions with uncertainty when speaking of the things of God, these words from the book of Revelation are appropriate:
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”
These are pretty hard words. And, of course, as a Mormon it’s hard to think of the phrase “hard words” without immediately thinking of Laman and Lemuel’s response to Nephi’s words in 1 Nephi 16, “Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.” To which Nephi replies, “I said unto them that I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked, according to the truth; and the righteous have I justified.” The words might apply to me. The very moment I am certain they can’t is the moment they certainly will.
On the other hand, I have to admit that I simply don’t believe the scriptures hold out such a simplistic model of faith. One of the great stories for me is from Mark 9. A father brings forward his son, who is tormented by an evil spirit. The Lord’s disciples have tried to cast out the spirit, and they have failed. And here are the scribes, asking their questions, no doubt delighted to find an example of a failed miracle. Seeing the scene, Jesus says, “O faithless generation… how long shall I suffer you?” Then the father asks for the Savior’s help, and this is their exchange:
22 … have compassion on us, and help us.
23 Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
24 And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
The father’s desperate plea—“help thou mine unbelief”—does not sound like the vacillation, equivocation, or qualification President Hinckley decried. But it doesn’t sound at all like certitude either. And yet it was enough, at least in the eyes of the Lord, and the man’s son was healed.
I also think of President Hinckley’s description of the certitude of the Savior’s disciples following His resurrection in contrast to their uncertainty beforehand. In the talk, he says that there was no doubt on the part of Peter when so many of Jesus’ disciples turned back in Capernaum, but that is not the way that this exchange from John 6 reads to me:
66. “Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
67. “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
68. “And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter’s initial response is almost an evasion. The follow up in verse 68 evinces certainty, but it does not appear to be all-encompassing. The disciples believed and were sure of Christ’s divinity, but they didn’t know what that meant. Nor did they understand all of His teachings. There was a very great deal of uncertainty co-existing alongside their certitude.
And it’s a good thing, too. Consider the disputes that rent the Church as it grew in the days after Christ’s ascension, and specifically the disputations over the proper place of their Gentile converts with regards to the Mosaic Law. Peter initially had the wrong of that, and Paul was in the right. How great of a stumbling block would it have been to the Church if Peter had been absolutely certain in his error?
President Hinckley’s talk was given 34 years ago. I was a baby then, so of course I have no memory of this talk. I did not know that it existed until last week, when I read the excerpt. And I must confess a sense of shame as I read it for the first time and realized that this past year was the first year (since my mission) that I even tried to listen to all the sessions of General Conference. How many more talks have been given over my lifetime that I have never heard? Never read? Never considered? I say that I sustain the apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators, and yet I have nearly two centuries of their official talks given in General Conference and I have never even considered that I might want to go back and systematically read them to see what they had to say. I think it’s time I change that.
At the same time, however, I am not a literalist or an inerrantist when it comes to scripture. It doesn’t make any sense to maintain that a collection of works from genres including poetry and parable must be read literally. And, as for inerrantism, the idea that a perfect text (if it existed) could be read perfectly is an extreme form of naïve realism. All human perception, but especially communication with others (through text or speech), is not a passive receipt of knowledge but an active, grasping apprehension of meaning. Even if the scriptures were innerant—which Mormons do not believe—it would not matter very much to us, because we do not interact with the text directly, but only through the medium of our minds. Which are not inerrant. (To say nothing of the limitations of human language.) The idea of an inerrant text is a superfluous and irrelevant abstraction. And so there is no question of if scripture ought to be interpreted. Reading is interpretation. The question is how to interpret them. How to balance what we think the author is trying to convey against what we think is true of God and the world.
If this balancing act is required when we read our canonized scripture, then it is also required when we read the words of modern prophets spoken during General Conference addresses. No matter how humble we seek to be, there is no avoiding the hard work of interpretation. Even the staunchest literalist is really just preferring one particular style of interpretation over another.
And so I must interpret, but that does not guarantee my interpretation is correct. I do not know to what extent my attempt to synthesize President Hinckley’s comments with my understandings is legitimate and to what extent I am just rationalizing. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma, but I do know that it cannot be avoided. It’s my job to bring what I have to bear—knowledge, other scripture, the Gift of the Holy Spirit—to try and find the truth.
I believe President Hinckley’s central point was about the role of conviction in faith. Without conviction we can accomplish nothing great. But I also believe that there are other sources for conviction beyond those relating to knowledge. When the father cried to Jesus, “Help thou mine unbelief,” there was a lack of knowledge but not a lack of conviction. In his case, it was the assurance of love rather than knowledge that drove his plea.
Maybe that is right. And maybe it is not even different from what President Hinckley was saying all along, and I’m just rephrasing his words in ways that make more sense to me. The father did not know about saviors or messiahs, but he knew about a sick child and one who could help. Maybe that’s a kind of knowledge after all, and maybe it’s the most important kind.
I’d like a chance to speak with President Hinckley and ask him if I got it right. Who knows? Maybe one day—if I still haven’t figured it out—I’ll get that chance.