Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Mormon axiom: I know the church is true

I'd like to bear my testimony, I know the church is true.

I wonder how old I was when I first uttered these words. Any Mormon who regularly attends church has certainly heard this staple opening line numerous times, most often from Mormon children. On the first Sunday of every month, instead of the typical pre-assigned talks and musical numbers  but not eliding the usual reverent distribution of bread and water symbolic of Christ's atonement  the hour known as "sacrament meeting" is taken instead by "testimony meeting," a time when the pulpit is open to anyone in the congregation who wishes to share their testimony, as moved upon by the holy spirit, or in some cases, as moved upon by the pious parent.

This particular time also coincides with the church's monthly fast, where most members forego food and drink for 24 hours, symbolically placing themselves further from the physical realm, and closer to the spiritual. Most members also follow the church's suggestion to donate money to the church's welfare system equivalent to or greater than the value of the skipped meals. This donation is not to be confused with tithing; instead it is used to directly benefit the needy. "Fast and testimony meeting" is therefore a spiritual time when the congregation is joined in fasting and sharing of testimonies. Everyone is encouraged to participate: just walk up to the pulpit (sit down in "line," if there is one, waiting for your turn) and share your sincerest beliefs. There is usually a stepping stool, and the podium's height is adjustable, so even children may participate.

I know the church is true.

To ease a child's nervousness towards public speaking, they seem to pick up — or are directly taught to recite  the standard icebreaker: "I['d] like to bear my testimony, I know [this|the] church is true." A child's simple testimony usually continues by expressing love for their family, and similarly proclaiming to know that Joseph Smith is a prophet, and Jesus is the Savior. All testimonies conventionally conclude, "In the name of Jesus Christ, amen," at which point the congregation echoes "amen," expressing their agreement with what was said. The same closing phrase and echoed "amen" similarly occur for prayers.

Mormons do not recite standard prayers such as the Ave Maria or the Lord's Prayer, but children's testimonies are nevertheless rather formulaic. Group prayers over food, being potentially given with much frequency, also tend to follow standard formulas, such as "Dear Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this food ... please bless this food ... in the name of Jesus Christ, amen." While such food-prayer formulas are more frequent, they are of less consequence by far than the proclamation of absolute surety.

I know the church is true.

Those like myself who were raised in a Mormon family have heard this simple sentence many, many times. We have probably also uttered it many times. Sometimes a testimony, even when focusing on a particular topic such as tithing, just doesn't feel like a testimony without delivering the coup de grâce: the catch all, cover all axiom that motivates it all in the first place. While adult testimonies are less scripted than that of a child, they nevertheless very commonly include the solemn avowal, "I know the church is true," usually near the end. Though the sentence itself communicates very little, its implications are enormous.

For example, the reason I gave tithing to the Mormon church, instead of putting that money towards any other church, charity, or investment, was because I knew the church was true. Had I instead known that the Seventh Day Adventists' was the true church, or Scientology, or Catholicism, I would have given tithing to them. But I knew that the Mormon church was true, therefore, I knew that all others were at best "mostly true."

I know the church is true.

As a youth, I never would have dreamed of taking even one sip of coffee. Seeing an R-rated movie was absolutely out of the question. I was the one among my childhood friends that would perhaps snicker at a dirty joke, but then quickly regain my composure, and punch the friend that told the joke repeatedly in the arm (not very hard), chanting "nasty, nasty, nasty," in rhythm with each blow. I vividly recall one occasion, where I made a comment while a friend was using the TV remote to flip through the channels. He misheard whatever I had said, and perplexed, he asked, "Did you just say 'bastard'?" I was flabbergasted. Of course not! I would never. "No," I responded. But he insisted, it sounded like I had said 'bastard.' With my pristine reputation on the line, I exclaimed in exasperation, "I did not say 'bastard'!" But in claiming to not have said it, I said it. I was at once deeply embarrassed and furious; I'm sure I blushed redder than I ever have before or since. The two friends present cracked up laughing in amazement and amusement. I began punching the offending friend's arm and chanting, "nasty, nasty, nasty, nasty," and continued to do so for quite a long time, appalled that he somehow got me to use a swear word.

This may seem a bit extreme, but to me it was the only reasonable way to behave. I recall in our teenage years, one of my (Mormon) friends noted that I was "very churchy," and that I seemed to always have the church present in my mind, my thoughts and actions consistently based on church teachings and doctrine. Well, of course. This seemed only natural to me. After all, I knew the church was true; all of that behavior simply stemmed from this singular knowledge and certainty, this one fundamental axiom. When it came time to decide if I wanted to serve an LDS mission, as was expected of all worthy 19-year-old boys, the choice was obvious.

Sé que la iglesia es verdadera.

This is one of the very first phrases I learned in the Missionary Training Center in Provo. Aside from the rudimentary Spanish I already knew from high school, the only thing I might have learned before the Spanish equivalent of "I know the church is true" was standard prayer phrases, since we began praying in Spanish on day one: "Querido Padre Celestial ... te damos gracias ... te pedimos ... en el nombre de Jesucristo, amén."

After a few weeks of language and proselyting training, off I went to the grand province of Buenos Aires to share my testimony with the Argentines. And share I did. For two years, I attempted to find and enlighten the Lord's elect: those people that would be willing to accept my testimony and ignite their own, joining themselves with the church that they, too, would come to know is true. There was one woman I met, who affirmed that "the church is true," and yet she no longer attended church meetings. This behavior utterly baffled me; clearly there was a hole in her testimony, for if she really knew the church to be true, this would motivate her to attend church meetings.

I know the church is true?

What happens when a missionary doesn't have a testimony? What is he to do? Or what if the potential convert isn't quite sure, hasn't yet gained a testimony? While this wasn't personally the case for me at the time, I often heard the following quip:

A testimony is found in the bearing of it.

Unsure missionaries are encouraged to bear testimony, even if they do not feel they have one, for this is the way one's testimony is built. Unsure potential converts are encouraged to take a leap of faith and are promised that they will not be disappointed. Unsure members are encouraged to have patience and extrapolate a testimony out of that which they will surely soon come to know. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma advises, "Even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe." Based on Alma's subsequent sermon, the children's hymn confirms, "Faith is like a little seed, if planted it will grow."

In my teenage years, I was often the first among my peers to take advantage of testimony-sharing opportunities. These arise not only during fast and testimony meeting, but also periodically occur at weekly youth activities, summer retreats, and weekday seminary instruction. I wonder at what point, if any, I transitioned from bearing testimony while unsure to bearing testimony while sure. I don't remember ever being unsure about what I believed or claimed to know.

I know the church is true.

This is why it is impossible to argue with a Mormon about religion. While there may be conclusions on which you agree, there is one fundamental axiom from which the Mormon mentality derives all else. "I know the church is true." Not just, "the church is true." It's, "I know the church is true." Emotionally, this is a much more powerful statement, because it links "the church is true" directly to a person's very ability to perceive truth. That person's knowledge system, the way his or her brain works, now stands or falls with the truthfulness of the church, for the Mormon axiom asserts, "I know the church is true."

It is impossible to get a Mormon to admit any proposition which implies that the church is in some way untrue, for this is inconsistent with their most basic axiom. According to logic based on "I know the church is true," there is no method for me to determine that the church is not true, no way to perform an experiment and conclude the falsehood of the church. According to this mindset, there is no embarrassment or evil the church can commit that would demonstrate it to be defective, no existing evidence to elide its exactitude.

I know the church is true.

Another memory I remember vividly was in high school. I was bearing my testimony in seminary to several dozen peers. I've always loved logic and science. However, I told them, science gives me no purpose. Science tells me that I am the extremely unlikely product of the randomized results of an arbitrary explosion, that I'm just a bundle of atoms that happen to move just so. But the church gives me so much more than that. Because I know the church is true, I therefore also know that I am a child of God, with the potential to become like him. A prince destined to become a king. A God in embryo. What could be more grand? What could be more meaningful?

Contradicting the Mormon axiom was unthinkable. My whole world, as I perceived it, was built around that one base assumption. Everything I knew, everything I was, everything I would be, revolved around the simplest of propositions.

I know the church is true.

And yet, I somehow managed to think the unthinkable. Somehow, in my mid twenties, I finally allowed myself to seriously consider that which was contrary to what I had believed my whole life. Contrary to what I had heard over the pulpit every month at fast and testimony meeting. Contrary to what I had boldly proclaimed. Contrary to the simplest, most fundamental axiom that had been so deeply ingrained in my mind, my worldview, my actions, my purpose, my life, my very reason for being. Contrary to what I had recited so many times before, more times than I can remember, since before I can remember.

Maybe the church isn't true.

11 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. It's not silly when it is taken as an axiom. It's just... true, under that system of logic. I have more to say about religious propositions in systems of logic, but I'll save that for another post.

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    2. I think what you are saying is highly dependent on whether you are talking objective truth or subjective truth, and how you define "true" in the context of "the church is true."

      In fact, I would argue that "I know the church is true" is not axiomatic under any rational system of logic. It is a claim that is testable and, in this case can be demonstrated as self contradictory. You cannot truthfully claim to know that which is unknowable unless you contort the definition of "know."

      I think to say that something is unassailable as "silly" or untrue because to someone it is axiomatic is a logical misstep. I will agree though that anyone is perfectly allowed to believe in whatever nonsense they wish to believe in, but that does not mean it has to be logical, even to them. They are likely choosing to believe on emotional grounds and are constructing a pseudo rational argument post hoc.

      Now, I may be misunderstanding your comment, if so, I apologize.

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    3. I agree with everything you have said. My previous remark can still stand, however, because "when it is taken as an axiom" collapses into an empty case, since it cannot soundly be taken as an axiom. (My technique for arriving at this conclusion differs from yours.) However, a problem arises when people do not fully elaborate their system of logic, which creates space for seeing silly things as not silly. Perhaps my previous remark is better stated "It does not *seem* silly..."

      I have a lot more to say, but I'd like to mull it over in my mind for a while before I say it, so that I say it well.

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    4. Fair enough, I see now what you're saying. I am interested in seeing what you have to say once it is finished "mulling."

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  2. When I say it, I consider it a conclusion and not an axiom. It is a very useful assumption in other proofs though :)

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    1. Right. Once again, I suppose this is more of a commentary on growing up Mormon rather than being Mormon in general.

      However, part of the motivation for this post was to raise awareness in discourse and debate between mormons and non-mormons, awareness that mormons take "the church is true" as basically a given assumption, while non-Mormons don't. This should be quite obvious, but too often communication between the two groups breaks down due to "Mormon logic" having this extra axiom. Indeed, sometimes exmormons hold "the church is not true" to be axiomatic, and in such cases debates between mormons and exmormons devolve into "yuh-huh! nuh-uh! yuh-huh! nuh-uh!" due to the conflicting axioms of their logical systems of thought. In order to have a mutually understandable discourse, we must dispel both axioms.

      http://youtu.be/OAyuhfZ85nE?t=2m

      Also, sometimes mormons don't understand how unconvincing their arguments are to people who do not share the mormon axiom. Mormons are encouraged to share testimony during discourse with others, which leads to basing arguments on the mormon axiom, which leads to unconvincing arguments to anyone except other mormons. Said another way, mormons are taught to rely on the convincing power of the holy ghost, rather than a convincing logical argument, which is why logical arguments leveraging the mormon axiom lose convincing logical power, since it eclipsed by reliance on convincing spiritual power.

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  3. I actually REMEMBER when that tradition got started. Not the exact date but it was sometime between 1968-1975. During a general conference one of the speakers said, " I don't believe the church is true [pregnant pause] I KNOW it is true." From then on, EVERYONE felt like they HAD to say that they KNEW it was true, otherwise, you sounded like you lacked conviction.

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