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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Faith Unto Knowledge- My Personal Epistemology

As someone who unapologetically claims to believe in God, the Jesus of the New Testament and the restoration of Jesus’ church through Joseph Smith I have a lot of explaining to do to my friends. The first step is to explain my epistemology so you understand the lens through which all this is evaluated.

A persons Epistemology is their theory of knowledge, or in other words the method/process that a person uses to claim any level of certainty about a given proposition. It’s an entire field of philosophy, and here I will lay out some of mine in relation to my faith life in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The first thing one must understand is that my belief in the restoration of Jesus’ church relies on two assumptions

  1. That God exists

  2. That fundamentally the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament was who the books claimed he was.

Whats funny is this first step is normally where the conversation breaks down. If a person does not grant these 2 premises (either for the sake of argument, or because they believe them to actually be true) then any conversation about the existence or restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ is doomed from the start. The point is that discussing calculus is impossible until you agree on (or at least grant for arguments sake) the principles of arithmetic. So the first thing a person must do if they want to understand my “Mormonism” is to first grant me my theism and my Christianity. This also is why I normally don’t spend a lot of time talking about “Mormonism” per se. It’s a pointless discussion unless those premises are granted and those premises are by no means accepted by the majority of people I interact with.

My Epistemological foundations.

Once a person accepts the Jesus of the Bible, a whole new epistemology enters the frame which is best explained by Paul.

But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God...Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."- Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.

The nature of being taught spiritually is an entire topic of its own. My own feelings are well summed up by LDS theologian Blake Ostler.

Does this mean I simply check my reason at the door when it comes to spiritual matters? NO. But I do believe that reason has its limits. I believe this quote from Austin Farrer frequently used by Elder Neal A Maxwell sums it up well.

“Though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish”

In the end my epistemology stems from my Christianity and is based on a collective witness model of understanding reality. I believe God reveals reality to man through the witnesses of our senses, reason, his spirit and his authorized messengers. As a follower of Jesus Christ I become more certain of a given notion the more of these witnesses there are to vouch for it.

"In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." Paul, 2 Cor 13:1

The True Church?

When I say the church is true, what am I actually saying? That it’s free from errors? That it’s members are morally superior? Of course not. I am saying is that, on a fundamental level, it is what it claims to be- the only institution on earth that holds what Jesus called “they keys of the kingdom” and the means by which people enter into covenant relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now there is a lot to unpack In those claims (which I hope do do in subsequent posts) but at a minimum these propositions are “unprovable”. People who say you can’t prove God or you can’t prove the church is true etc etc, show they don’t understand the nature of the claim. They also don’t understand that “proof” is a technical term and very little can be “proven” in a technical sense. Instead in matters like these human beings conclude that something has reasonable justification for being believed. And depending on ones epistemology people have different standards for what is considered valid evidence and how much is required to reasonably justify a particular belief.

So what is faith and how does it play into all this? Faith (as I use the term) is trust. Trust in a particular belief that is uncertain but that you think has enough basis to put your confidence in and therefore base your behavior on. We all do this all the time. For instance, I don’t know if my wife is always faithful to me, I can’t prove it but I have placed my faith in the notion that she is because I have good reason to think she is and my behavior reflects that. The Bible interestingly actually points this out when it says that your actions (not your words) are the real manifestation of what you have placed your faith in. Psychologist like have long understood that what a person says they believe and what they actually believe are not the same thing.

Still there is a deeper question here. At what point is faith in something justifiable. As Christopher Hitchens famously would regularly say; don’t “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? The answer is a resounding yes. But the atheist and the Christian come to the table with totally different views on what evidence is admissible and legitimate. Still, even on reason alone we can see that it’s often rational to place your faith in uncertain proportions.

You already put your faith in all sorts of things.

It’s vital to understand that faith is a notion we use in our everyday lives all the time. Here is the way it works.

Premise 1) proposition x is uncertain.

Premise 2) If proposition x is true, you are better off having faith/trusting it’s true.

Premise 3) If proposition x is false, you are better off having faith/trusting it’s true.

Logical conclusion: you should put your faith in the notion that proposition x is true until you gain sufficient certainty about the truth or false nature of the proposition.

So let’s break this down with a simple analogy. Let’s say I am 99.9% certain my wife is faithful. So I only am 0.1% confident that she might be cheating on me. Well, what if that rises to 5%... or 10% or 50% or 70%. At what point should I make that leap of faith and begin living as if she was cheating on me (IE get a divorce, get custody of kids, divide assets etc). Well that is a very individual thing. We all have different tolerances. However it seems relevant and rationale to consider the costs involved. For instance, I may be willing to take action at 20% confidence if we had no kids and my wife was already emotionally abusive and hateful toward me. I might say something like “well I can’t stand her anyway and I think there is a good chance she cheated on me so...”

However, what if you were very happily married and had 7 kids who were all living happy lives. Everything in your life seemed perfect. But you were 30% sure your wife cheated. Should you choose to believe it? Should you take action? Remember you are not sure, it may be true, it may not be, but either way you have to place your bet (aka faith) in one or the other because you have to make choices about your behavior. Also agnosticism is not really an option on a practical level. Sure I can say I am not certain if my wife cheated on me but it’s my behavior that will manifest where I have placed my faith.

Have you ever heard the phrase “you better be dang sure before you do x”? We generally use this phrase to express when we are dealing with an uncertain proposition that has large consequences to our well being. So consider if a persons faith life makes their life 1000 times better and the loss of it would drive them to depression and ruin. You might see in that instance why it’s reasonable for that persons “confidence threshold” to be much higher before they jump ship on their beliefs than it would be for a person who already felt like the church was not meeting their desires or who flat out held the church in contempt.

The reality is every reasonable person has doubts. Which is another way of saying no reasonable person has a confidence score of 100%. So there are two variables at play in a persons faith in any given proposition. One is the confidence score in the truth, the other is what I will call our “better off” score. The former is affected by our arguments if the church is true, the latter is affected by if we think the church is good. The relationship between these two scores for a rational person is that if the “better off” score is high because of faith in Church’s claims, the confidence score in the church being a fraud would also need to be high in order for them to jump ship. Just like in the case with your wife cheating on you (or any uncertain proposition) you better be very sure before you jump to a conclusion if the stakes are high. This is perfectly reasonable.

Where I have placed my faith

Lastly, I want to emphasize the necessity of belief. I wrote an entire piece on the fact that because we must make choices we end up having to implicitly place our bet (aka faith) in some kind of underlying axioms about the nature of being. My attempt to understand and render coherent the axioms that govern my behavior is my personal spiritual journey and religion. Perhaps I am totally mistaken, but I am not insincere. I am always looking for new ways to understand the world and spend a lot of time engaged in what I like to call “the fundamental conversations”. These are the conversations that make up the basis of my own worldview. I have framed them into 3 basic conversations that form the lens through which I view reality.

1- Once I had a conversation about reality

and amongst the ideas available

the best explanation was that God exists.

2-Once I had a conversation about God

and amongst the ideas available

the best explanation was Jesus was who he claimed to be.

3-Once I had a conversation about Jesus

and among the ideas available

the best explanation was that he had restored his church.

Ultimately, these are separate conversations and each one is dependent on the prior. So if you are going to journey with me into conversation #3, you need to grant me the first two, otherwise none of the it will make sense.

There may be areas where I have doubts, but as a matter of my own personal experience the principles of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ has made my life immensely and deeply better and I believe it has the power to change that for the whole world for the better- so the stakes are extremely high for me. I also would fully admit my confidence in the church being true is not 100%. If I had to put a number on it (which I don’t like doing) I would say in my life it has varied at any given time in my life from 40-80% but it never has dropped so low that I did not feel justified in the faith I have placed in it and I will testify that I have never regretted where I have placed my faith. This is why I invite people to “come and see” and am confident that when their lives are transformed for the better they too will feel justified in placing their faith where I have placed mine.

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Nora Charles
Nora Charles
Apr 23, 2021

I cannot begin to tell you how much your logic has helped me today. I am an a journey that I hope ends in a testimony of Jesus and His restored gospel. Finding your youtube channel and your blogs was an answer to a prayer I didn't even send to the Heavens, it was simply a quiet but powerful need deep within me. Thank you so very much Jacob!

Nora Charles
Nora Charles
May 21, 2021
Replying to

I will read that one, thank you so much! I have been seeing a lot of criticism of Joseph Smith's character lately, people saying that he was a notorious liar, and even when it came to polygamy, he didn't tell Emma that he was marrying these other women and sleeping with them. I understand that he wasn't perfect man, but I struggle with understanding how he could be a prophet worthy of revelation when he wasn't dealing honestly with his own wife. My friend believes that even though we have a lot of information regarding church history, that doesn't mean that it is all completely accurate. And that when it come to polygamy and how Joseph handled it she believes…

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