This Won’t Make It Past Correlation!

John Nilssonchurch, curiosity, doubt, faith, LDS, Mormon, questioning, religion, spirituality, testimony 36 Comments

Another week, another great uncorrelated quote from an LDS Church manual that would never see the light of day in today’s church:

Every discussion of faith must distinguish it from its caricatures. Faith is not credulity. It is not “believing things you know ain’t so.” It is not a formula to get the universe to do your bidding. It is not a set of beliefs to be swallowed by one gulp. Faith is not knowledge. It is mixed with uncertainty or it would not be faith.

Who wrote it, and why wouldn’t this be published in a lesson manual today?

Comments 36

  1. Hugh B. Brown, October 1969 General Conference. Any reference to uncertainty would probably be seen as a step on the slippery slope to loss of testimony.

  2. Interesting quote. And it may be the source of many of my complaints about many member’s understanding of faith.

    I disagree that faith is knowledge (er, that’s aimed at Neal in #2), but I agree with Talmage in his writings that faith is more about action, which is how I tend to interpret Alma 32. You have faith that things are one way–so you act on it.

    As a motivation researcher, I find that the concept of faith is very similar to a lot of the ideas that pscyhologists bandy about in terms of motivation. Frankly it comes down to, for me, faith is a set of hopes or beliefs that induce action.

    Would it make it past correlation today? No, of course not, but it probably should, since he’s making a valid point–we need to understand very clearly what faith is not. Could his method of expanding on that point have been more clear or less confusing to those who are not reading carefully? Probably.

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    Good guess, but no. I will check out that conference talk of his now though.

    My quote comes from a church manual that predates the talk you reference.

    You are right that uncertainty is not trendy in today’s Church, for many reasons. It seems to be felt that people cannot act amidst uncertainty, for one.


    Good point. When we interpret Alma 32 in that way, I think we obscure the way life is lived for most of us.

  4. Well, maybe the quote will make it past correlation after all. There is a wide range in the future.

    One problem is that faith is three different things.

    I’ve written about that at and probably should do a follow-up here. That leads to some confusion when discussing the word, much like love can mean a number of different things (though we use modifiers for romantic love, platonic love, brotherly love, etc. — which helps to reduce confusion).

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    As far as faith inducing action, doesn’t faith in some concepts remain entirely theoretical?

    For instance, if I have faith that Jesus was born of a virgin, in what way does that induce me to action?

  6. I don’t know who wrote it, but I don’t necessarily agree with this:

    “Faith is not knowledge. It is mixed with uncertainty or it would not be faith.”

    A person may have faith to an extent that they do not doubt and have no uncertainty. Thus, I only agree with the above statement if you are defining knowledge as “having no uncertainty.” But if you define knowledge as based on some form of proof that the object of the person’s faith is true/correct/real, I disagree. Some people have a belief in something so powerfully, that they do not doubt it, even though they have no proof that their faith is justified.

    On the other hand, I do agree that faith is often mixed with uncertainty (Mark 9:24 “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief”), and this is the faith I can relate to most often.

  7. Except that I’ve heard this kind of sentiment in common discourse…then-President Bednar described faith (quite famously at the time) at a devotional using the “step into the dark” metaphor where he had a girl put on a blind fold and fall backwards.

    I heard Truman G. Madsen cite a story (also with Brown) about how faith requires that we be in the dark sometimes.

    In fact, I would see the declaration that faith is certainty to be more heterodox than the quote cited above.

    Def. a keeper for correlation.

  8. I think that faith in regards to comment #7, wouldn’t be faith. It would be belief. If it does not induce you to some kind of action, it is not faith.

    Similarly, if you act in faith on something that is not true, it is not faith. (Per the old indian/gunpowder story) Faith rests in more than just the mind of the one with faith.

  9. The power of faith Hugh B Brown

    I think most of the church hierarchy would like us to believe readily or quickly – You know its from the prophet or apostles, do you really need to ponder. When your walking in the city your children need to listen when you tell them to stop right now or they will be hit by a car. They ponder to long to think their dead

    It is not “believing things you know ain’t so.” Darius Gray and Margaret Young’s presentation and Mountain Meadow Massacre in the ensign would make this statement possibly difficult for some members to hear or take in now as it could appear we were believing things that ain’t so. Google hasn’t been a good friend to the church in this regard either!

    “Faith is not knowledge” We also teach it’s possible to have our calling election made sure.

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    Stephen M,

    I share your hope that this kind of quote will make it past correlation in the future. It will probably take some major changes in the way members of the correlation committee are called to achieve this.


    You are right! It is the second quote in a row from Obert Tanner’s Sunday School classic, Christ’s Ideals for Living.

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    I see your point about uncertainty not being a necessary ingredient of faith, but wouldn’t a person in the grip of complete certainty, especially a Mormon in the grip of complete certainty, describe their own certainty as knowledge, even if they can’t replicate it to an observer?

    Heck, most Mormons I know who are not completely certain about certain religious articles of faith still say they have a knowledge of, not have faith in, whatever the concept is under discussion.


    While faith as stepping into the dark is a common feature of Mormon discourse (Packer has deployed this line of reasoning too) the interesting thing about Tanner’s quote when read in context of his whole lesson on faith is that there is no discussion of faith as a tentative first step in the dark to be one day, in this life, to be rewarded with the noonday sun of complete knowledge. Alma 32 feeds into this progressive assumption that faith will grow into something else in this life.

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    I think that I agree with your use of the term belief, except that we say that the first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. What action is connected to that faith? Repentance? Baptism? What is the belief content of faith in Jesus Christ? That he…?

    Equating faith with trust does not make the attitude you take “not faith” if your trust is misplaced. I suppose you could use the concept of true faith instead of false faith, but then you end up sounding like a New Order song. 🙂


    You raise the interesting point of placing our faith, or our religiously-oriented trust, in history. This makes our faith constantly vulnerable to new evidence, or changing interpretations of old evidence. This is a grave mistake, I fear.

  13. The last two sentences would have trouble getting past correlation. The first part of the quote shouldn’t be a problem.

    However, add a single word to the last two sentences and it would be fine: “Faith is not [certain] knowledge. It is mixed with uncertainty or it would not be faith.”

    Unless you want to suggest Alma 32 wouldn’t make it through correlation. (In fact a reference to Alma 32 fits very well there.)

    Furthermore, I suspect that the uncertain knowledge that is faith is what Elder Brown wanted to communicate, and he did not intend to say that faith provides you with no knowledge of the truth. We see through a glass darkly is the obvious correct doctrine here.

    In fact I think this could be an example of how useful correlation is. Often we make a statement and mean to communicate a specific thought, but when looked over by others possible misunderstandings can be seen, this allows modification to ensure clarity. Everyone here seems to assume the correlation is bad, when it’s apparent to me that correlation contains a lot of advantages (in addition to some dangers).

  14. “For instance, if I have faith that Jesus was born of a virgin, in what way does that induce me to action?”

    It would move me to action, since it implies many things worthy of action.

    John, I have a clarification for you, when you say, “Heck, most Mormons I know who are not completely certain about certain religious articles of faith still say they have a knowledge of, not have faith in, whatever the concept is under discussion.”

    I believe you are right, but it would seem to depend on the definition of the terms in question. I could point to *many* things that people without complete certainty say they have “knowledge” of. Do you “know” the world is round? Have you ever been to outer space yourself to verify?

    In fact, if we eliminate “knowledge by authority” as a source of “knowing”, on the grounds that it’s never complete certainty, haven’t we eliminted nearly all academic knowledge for most people? (That’s why we have “professors” at college, because they are the rare person that actually has first hand knowledge and can “profess” it to us.)

    C.S. Lewis made this point about knowledge by authority in Mere Christianity. I think it’s valid here. Wish I had the quote handy.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think your real point is that Mormons use the term “I know” and feel bad about “I have faith in” and I think this is a valid concern and I strongly disagree with it. But I think it’s a mistake to assume “I know” must always (or even usually) be equated to “complete certainty.”

  15. Excellent quote. My first, gut reaction also was Hugh B. Brown.

    I do think we have swung the “know” pendulum too far and need to restore the proper “faith” balance. There are “spiritual/religious” things I feel comfortable saying that I know, but I pretty much always know inside that I mean “for myself” and “to the absolute best of my current ability to understand”. There are very few things I feel comfortable saying I know completely and fully.

  16. I’m telling you, someone was teaching out of this manual when I was growing up in my home ward. This is also familiar (as was the first O.C. Tanner quote). It’s disappointing to think that some of these things would be correlated away, but to Cicero’s point, I’m not one of the ones who is misunderstanding as an excuse to apostatize (paraphrasing big time here).

    There is a major problem with “knowing” in the church. The following model has been suggested by Robert Nozick as a test for whether you know something:
    S knows that P if and only if:
    -S believes that P;
    -if P were false, S would not believe that P;
    -if P is true, S will believe that P.

    The problem comes in with the 3rd condition because we are talking about matters of faith or belief, but we are applying the term knowledge. As an example, Robert Nozick says: “A father believes his son innocent of committing a particular crime, both because of faith in his son and (now) because he has seen presented in the courtroom a conclusive demonstration of his son’s innocence. His belief via the method of the courtroom satisfies the four subjunctive conditions, but his faith-based belief does not. If his son were guilty, he would still believe him innocent, on the basis of faith in his son; this would violate the third subjunctive condition.”

    That’s why faith doesn’t qualify as knowledge–it does, however, drive action and perception and is powerful in the way that love is powerful to transform. Knowledge is less than it. Why do we suggest otherwise?

  17. AdamE,

    I am interested in your distinction among certainty and faith and knowledge. How would you define the difference between faith and knowledge, a la Alma 32 (and implicitly Hebrews 11:1)? If certainty can be based on faith, what is the difference between certainty based on faith and certainty based on knowledge?

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    Before the correlation era, there were editors. In fact, Tanner’s text had to pass a reading committee of General Authorities as well as the normal editing process. We shouldn’t assume correlation is about editing, rather it is about uniformity of message. It is like a political campaign’s attempt to stick to its talking points. When applied to a church, this has less savory results, since the campaign never ends…

    Our religious concepts and language may have changed a bit since the 1950s as well.

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    “It would move me to action, since it implies many things worthy of action.”

    How would faith in this one aspect of Christ’s birth move you to action? I agree that taken together with other doctrines about Christ (heavenly father versus earthly father, premortal activities) this may be a motivation to action, but many religious beliefs seem entirely abstract and “un-motivating” to me. That is, what do I DO with them?

    I do not know that the world is round, as in a circle. I believe that the earth is spherical, perhaps slightly oblong, from what I understand of the effect gravity has on our planet. Also I have been in a plane which has taken a flight path which would make no sense given other possible shapes of the earth. So I necessarily see this as a different kind of knowledge claim than “Jesus was born of a virgin” which is a faith statement. When one makes the second kind of statement, it is a statement of faith in the authors of the original statement, either biblical authors or authors of the early creeds.

    I agree with your academic knowledge assertion to a point. While professors are expected to profess their areas of expertise, they also provide, in many cases, demonstrations of how they arrived at their conclusions, which are then subjected to peer review. The part where your assertion breaks down, and I don’t mean to get all Richard Dawkins on you (I disagree with him on the value of the humane disciplines, for instance), is where academic knowledge forms the foundation of applied sciences like engineering and medicine. These fields then enter the everyday life of human society in a very direct way. I would then argue that knowledge becomes common and universal, while faith, like trust, cannot be demonstrated, only lived one person at a time.

  20. I wonder if I’m guilty of misinterpretation, but for me, faith equals motive. I go to the bus stop, because I have faith that a bus will come – after repeating this X times my experience tells me, that under certain conditions the bus will come. Thus, I have gained a knowledge of a principle.

    But certainty? Certainty in the example I stated would be that there was no way the bus could ever break down or have a crash or whatever. There are *very* few certainties in mortality.

    I believe that Christ was born of a virgin. I can’t have faith, because it doesn’t induce me to act. But that belief supports my belief that He is the Son of God. Further, that supports my belief that he atoned for the sins of mankind. That supports my belief that I can become a better person because of what he did. Now that gives me a reason to have faith to change my behavior in certain ways.

    In my vocabulary, believe is abstract, faith is concrete.

    My interpretation of Alma 32 is a recipe for spiritual growth. We exercise faith, i.e. change our behavior in certain ways, and, as a result we experience something (like the bus coming), which strengthens the motivation (faith) and when repeated, becomes a knowledge that when I do X, Y follows. Yes, faith is a very personal thing and can only be lived one person at a time.

    My knowledge will always be incomplete, because of my very limited capacity to test principles in the manner I just explained. That’s why I may be a 100% TBM, but not have a personal experience (testimony, knowledge call it what you will) about something you have.

    My semantics may be odd, but that may be because English is not my native language – and I admittedly sometimes use words ambiguously despite trying not to.

  21. John Nilsson and David H:

    I distinguish between an unshakeable faith and knowledge with the following anecdotes.

    A man receives a spiritual witness that the CJCLDS is Christ’s church and believes that the Priesthood is God’s power on earth. His brother dies and is prepared for burial. He gives his brother a blessing, and his brother returns to life. (Rough paraphrase from Elder Oaks’ talk, “Miracles.”)

    Did the man “know” that God would raise his brother from the dead? Well, I wouldn’t disagree if you characterized it as knowledge, it feels to me more like unshakable faith, “nothing wavering.” There was no uncertainty even though there was no proof of the miracle before it occurred.

    On the other hand, in another anecdote from Elder Oaks’ talk, a man received a witness from the Holy Ghost that God would raise his daughter from the dead. He blessed her, waited a night, and she rose from the dead and was healed of her physical injuries. This man received a spiritual witness of the miracle before he gave the blessing, so I would say that he “knew” God would heal his daughter. He also had great faith to even present the matter to God, but once he received the witness, he had knowledge.

    When I speak of knowledge, I’m talking about having received proof that something is true, whether spiritual or otherwise. When I talk about faith, I’m talking about either not having received the proof, forgetting the proof (spiritual confirmations fade), or extrapolating (I know Jesus is my Savior, so I have faith he will forgive my sins).

  22. David H,

    I love Alma 32. It reflects my own experiences with the Holy Ghost very well.

    I exercise faith by studying/praying/testifying/doing what God has asked me to do, and God eventually gives me a witness via the Holy Ghost of that thing. I then know that thing, and in my experience, “know” is the correct word for how I feel when the Holy Ghost confirms something to me. It is a knowledge that, in that moment, I do not doubt. I do not have faith in that thing (I would add “at that time”), rather, I have knowledge.

    But, as Alma (and Velska) said, I do not yet know all things, so I continue the process. Based on my knowledge in one thing, I can exercise faith in others. (I know the Priesthood is the power of God, so I exercise faith by administering to the sick; I know this is Christ’s church, so I exercise faith by staying with it, even if I don’t understand every policy)

    In my experience, I have to add a time element to the equation. For example, I have felt the Holy Ghost testify to me that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. But over time, my “knowledge” fades, and I can doubt what I felt. I do not feel the knowledge of spiritual confirmation forever. While I have faith that Joseph Smith was a prophet, I am comfortable saying I “know” it, because I remember that I have had those spiritual confirmations from time to time, even if I do not feel them now.

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    It does sound like a Hugh Brown quote. I’m glad I faked everybody out again.


    That’s an interesting syllogism from Robert Nozick. It does drive home the point that faith is a synonym for trust, rather than some mystical form of knowledge. It is the sum total of our interactions with a person and our mental state which determine our level of faith in a person.

    Can we have nonpersonal faith, or only faith in persons (like Jesus and Joseph or our spouse)?

  24. John: “Can we have nonpersonal faith, or only faith in persons (like Jesus and Joseph or our spouse)?” Is it faith in a person or an idea that “the leaders of this church will never lead us astray”? Is it faith in a person or an idea that “the Book of Mormon is true.” Try these on for size (using Nozick’s syllogism):

    The church is true.
    S believes the church is true.
    BUT even if the church isn’t true, it is still true enough or true in another way.

    The leaders of this church will never lead us astray.
    S believes that the leaders of this church will never lead us astray.
    BUT even if one of the leaders of the church lead us astray, OVERALL the leaders of this church will never lead us astray.

    These are basically versions of apologist arguments. Religion is full of apologists because it’s not a system of knowledge, but of faith.

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  27. When I was 17 I had taken took some college courses, (computer languages). When I came home from college I applied for a job at a prestigious CPA firm on the 18th floor of a bank in San Antonio, TX. I had “faith” I was going to get the job. I don’t know why; but I knew I was going to get the job. I didn’t think I was going to get the job. I didn’t hope I was going to get the job. I “knew” I was going to get the job. I can even tell you why I shouldn’t have gotten the job. There was a woman with a bachelors’ degree and a man with a master’s degree that applied for the position. Oh, and the courses I took were from a maximum security reform school. I had plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t get the job.
    My mother told me in her motherly way; “David why don’t you apply at some other places for different jobs?” She was trying to spare my feelings.
    I stopped at a department store across the street from the bank and applied for a stock boy position before I went to the bank. My Mother asked me to. They told me I wasn’t qualified.  I went across the street to the bank and they told me I was hired.
    Remember that maximum security reform school? I was sent there because I ran away from home then I escaped from the other reform schools. That is also where I found The Book of Mormon that a guard had brought. I’m really going to have to thank that man.
    Faith is a gift from God, but we must nurture our faith to keep it strong. Faith is like a muscle. If exercised, it grows strong. If left immobile, it becomes weak.
    We can nurture the gift of faith by praying to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ. As we express our gratitude to our Father and as we plead with Him for blessings that we and others need, we will draw near to Him. We will draw near to the Savior, whose Atonement makes it possible for us to plead for mercy (see Alma 33:11). We will also be receptive to the quiet guidance of the Holy Ghost.
    We can strengthen our faith by keeping the commandments. Like all blessings from God, faith is obtained and increased through individual obedience and righteous action. If we desire to enrich our faith to the highest possible degree, we must keep the covenants we have made.
    We can also develop faith by studying the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets. The prophet Alma taught that the word of God helps strengthen faith. Comparing the word to a seed, he said that the “desire to believe” can lead us to “give place” for the word to be “planted in [our] heart[s].” Then we will feel that the word is good, for it will begin to enlarge our souls and enlighten our understanding. This will strengthen our faith. As we continually nurture the word in our hearts, “with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.” (See Alma 32:26–43.)

  28. John: Yes, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not faith unless it is connected with repentance, baptism, and that which comes afterwards. Faith is not belief or hope, although belief or hope are part of faith. Faith is belief combined with action that brings result.

    To take the world-is-round analogy, if I believe the world is round, for whatever reason, it is only belief until I try to sail (fly, etc.) around it, or take some other action that necessitates acting on something I don’t already know by experience. With Alma’s planting-a-seed analogy, I only believe it will grow until I plant it, then I have faith that it will grow.

    However, if my faith is placed in something that is not true, I might think it is faith, but it is not. I can plant all the gunpowder I like, but it is not faith that it will grow, it is only belief. I can believe I have faith the world is round, but if I were to sail and fall off the edge, it would not be faith. Faith is not equated with trust, because you can trust something that isn’t true. Therefore, “false faith” is theologically an oxymoronic phrase. You can only falsely believe or trust..

    This is an aspect of faith which is difficult to understand, because we would all like to think our perceptions are important on a scale outside of ourselves. As I said before, faith is about more than just what goes on in someone’s head. It is a very real power, and one of the fundamental powers of existence.

  29. “I agree with your academic knowledge assertion to a point. While professors are expected to profess their areas of expertise, they also provide, in many cases, demonstrations of how they arrived at their conclusions, which are then subjected to peer review.”

    John, you seem to have misunderstood my point as it had nothing to do with faith vs. academic knowledge and was only about use of speech. So I have no argument with anything you said except one nitpicky point I’ll make at the end of this comment.

    Bear in mind I am not asserting that faith and academic knowledge are equivalent. That assertion is unnecessary for my argument. What I am asserting is that the vast majority of what we “know” isn’t certain knowledge to us most of the time but rather knowledge on authority. This is demonstratably true and there are ample examples of where this process goes awry — for example convictions based on faulty science. I do not believe you’d argue this point with me. This doesn’t mean we *have* to accept this knowledge on authority alone as we are able to go out and determine it for ourselves if it’s good science. But most of the time this is cost prohibitive if only because there is way too much information out there to not accept it primarily on authority.

    My point is much simpler than you are assuming. It is that saying “I know” does not generally mean “I have personal first hand and thus certain knowledge.” I said nothing more than this.

    Now for the nit: I doubt you have flown in a plane in such a way that would convince a flat earth believer you “know” the world is “spherical” or “round” (geez… talk about getting technical over common use of language. 😛 ). Unless you have flow over the South Pole and returned to the other side, you don’t yet have sufficient personal knowledge to disprove their flat earth view. 😛 (Though if you personally flew the plan and measured that the miles near the south pole around the world and they were the same as the miles near the north pole, this would disprove them easily. But most likely you haven’t done that, though, who knows, you might surprise me.)

    So technically you don’t “know for certain” the earth is spherical. But I have no issue with you saying you “know the world is spherical” because, I believe, you do “know” the earth is spherical for all intents and purposes.

  30. John, concerning your question about faith in things that don’t move to action, I’m not really disagreeing with you. But I can’t think of very many things that I have faith in that don’t connect to something else. In fact, they all sort of hook together in various ways, which is why I think it’s difficult to give up even cultural doctrines not found in scripture.

    So I don’t want to disagree with what you are saying, but just say that I’m not so sure I have faith in anything that doesn’t, at least at the moment, seem to connect to something that moves me to action. (Or at least *should* move me to action if I really had faith in it.) The virgin birth was a good example of this.

    But then, honestly, if I got up to heaven and found that all the doctrines I believe in were true *except* the virgin birth, it wouldn’t affect me at all. So I suppose you are right that by itself that doctrine is not really so meaningful. It’s really just part of several other doctrines about how I view Jesus, the Bible, etc.

  31. “Similarly, if you act in faith on something that is not true, it is not faith.” (slight threadjack, but still talking about faith)

    There are many definitions of faith, and this is only one of them. Most of them do not require that the object of the faith be true. In Mormon circles, we tend to use this one the most; but generally speaking, I can have faith in anything and everything, whether true or false.

    Suppose I am about to give Joe a blessing. I have faith that Joe will be healed. If he is healed, it turns out I did have faith; but if he isn’t healed, then it turns out I just had hope. The distinction makes no sense, since we’re describing the exact same feeling/sense/attitude of “faith” before I gave the blessing (and I even acted on it), but we determine whether it was or was not faith in hindsight by looking at whether I was right or wrong.

  32. listening to testimonies at church used to be something that i really looked forward to. but then the discussion came up at home that ‘we can’t know for sure that’s all part of faith’
    I think it’s not off putting, but it can make allot of people wonder ‘do I KNOW with every fibre of there being?’
    I know for myself that with people saying they ‘know’ can really make you look at yourself and ask yourself if you have been doing something wrong. it can make you feel guilty!

    it needs to be stressed throughout the church that we should not constantly be saying we ‘know’ at every testimony meeting etc.
    maybe some people do ‘know’ but for many others I don’t think it’s that way. it’s hard to say, but either way. people shouldn’t feel that they have to say I ‘know’ when they get up to bear their testimonies

  33. just as i finshied writting this a women in the film that was playng on the TV next to me said ‘if we didn’t believe the unbelievable what would happen to faith’

    the film is called ‘love is many splendid things’

    wierd how that happened just then!

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