How We Know What We Know
by Truman G. Madsen
Reverberations of truth in an age of deeply conflicting voices.
Over a period of forty years, I have worked in the area of “how does one know,” a study that has become more significant in an age of deeply conflicting voices. And I can report, in a comparative mood, that there are only five main modes that have been appealed to in all traditions, philosophical or religious. An appeal to reason, an appeal to sense experience, to pragmatic trial and error, to authority (the word of experts), and finally to something a bit ambiguous called intuition. I can report, too, that from my judgment, those five modes are harmonized and balanced in our living (LDS) tradition more effectively than any other tradition I know.
Is there a religious way of knowing? Do these modes leave anything out? To answer that, I want to speak of a religious undergirding experience and not just religious experiences. Let me tell you that there are evidences, now widely recognized, that religious experiences are far more common than has been observed in the recent past and that they are not simply the projections of infantile regression, which is what some reductive psychological theories say. It is at least possible that the sense of God originates in God himself.
Let me begin with a few quotations from an almost-forgotten poet, historian, and member of the Council of the Twelve–Orson F. Whitney:
Why are we drawn toward certain persons and they to us as if we had always known each other? Is it a fact that we always have? Is there something after all in that much abused term affinity? In all events, it is just as logical to look back upon fond associations as it is to look forward to them.
We believe that the ties formed in this life will be continued in the life to come. Then, why not believe that we had similar ties before and that some of them at least have been resumed in this state of existence.
After meeting someone whom I had never met before on earth, I have wondered why that person’s face seemed so familiar.
More than once, upon hearing a noble sentiment expressed, though unable to recall that I’d ever heard it until then, I found myself in sympathy with it, was thrilled by it, and felt as if I had always known it.
The same is true of some strains of music, some perhaps heard today. They are like echoes of eternity. I do not assert pre-acquaintance in all such cases but, as one thought suggests another, these queries arise.
When it comes to the Gospel, I feel more positive. Why did the Savior say, “My sheep know my voice?” Did the sheep ever know the voice of a shepherd it had never heard before? They who love the truth, and to whom it most strongly appeals, were they not acquainted with it in a previous life? I think so. I believe we knew the Gospel before we came here, and that is what gives it a familiar sound.1
Now add the lines from Eliza R. Snow that we sing and feel, “Ofttimes a certain something whispers, ‘You’re a stranger here.'” A friend of mine calls this “celestial homesickness.” But also, I would add, that there is a feeling that we are here on purpose–that we haven’t just wandered “from a more exalted sphere” but are where we ought to be. This sometimes comes through in a sense that we have seen or felt or experienced a thing before. And so I suggest a premise rather unique to our tradition, that recognition, spiritually speaking, is indeed REcognition, that some discovery is REcovery, that recollection is the REcollection of images from before.
B.H. Roberts once said that “Faith”–and he meant faith in Christ or trust in Christ–“is simply trust in what the spirit learned aeons ago.” Behind that statement are two sovereign truths from our modern revelations. One is that man is spirit. Yes, embodied, but man is spirit (D&C 93:30-31). It is even said that man is the spirit of truth from the beginning (D&C 93:23). Hence, says modern revelation, all intelligence, being independent, can either welcome or suppress and repress the Holy Spirit. And if we do not receive it, we are told, we are under condemnation (D&C 93:30-31). On the other hand, if we do receive it, then we are told that our light will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day (D&C 50:24).
The other truth is that “the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit” (D&C 84:45-46).
Is it then the case that this beginning light is in everyone? Is it a universal experience? If so, does this have enough impact, even in the so-called secular world, that Jung, for example, posits a collective unconscious–you don’t just remember your own autobiography, you somehow remember the whole racial experience. And thus, he says, a fourteen-year-old girl can have dreams of all the archetypes of the human consciousness though she has never experienced them directly in this world. Or again, Joseph Campbell, the great student of comparative religion and myth, wants to say that myths express the depths of man more effectively than so-called prosaic or propositional truths. Some eastern philosophers, convinced that we have more in our minds than can be accounted for by this life, have concluded that reincarnation or even transmigration is the only explanation.
William James once argued that, because of this same phenomenon, there may be a reservoir of spiritual insight that not just exceptional persons but the ordinary man or woman can occasionally break into and recognize. Rudolph Otton has written about the idea of the holy and call it the “numinous,” just as the word luminous refers to light. This is the sense of the sacred which he holds is universal and isn’t discovered or learned, but somehow given. Many of the theists among modern writers in existentialism have talked about the “depth-self” that even our own best introspection cannot reach.
Now, leading into reason for a moment, let me quote from the Prophet Joseph Smith. “Every word,” he says, “Every word of Jehovah has such an influence over the human mind–the logical mind.” I interrupt to say that I think he doesn’t mean the mind of one trained in formal logic, Aristotelian or Russellian, but a mind that hasn’t been cluttered by the notion that in religion the more contradictions you find the better, that piling paradox on paradox somehow indicates truth. No. “To the human mind–the logical mind,” the Prophet says, every word of Jehovah “is convincing without other testimony. Faith or trust comes by hearing the word.”2
Many of you will encounter, if you haven’t already, traditional rational arguments for the existence of God. They are all of them afflicted with fallacies. They presuppose in their premises what they claim to demonstrate in the conclusion. And, further, they presuppose in their premises something about the very nature of God.
I suggest that little is given in holy writ that can be called an argument for the existence of God. I suggest that instead of argument there is witness. Witness to experience. God is not at the end of a syllogism; but rationality, and a mind illuminated, enable us to follow certain clear inferences from proper and authentic premises.
What about witness? That leads us to both the question of authority and the question of our own testimony. Said the Prophet again, “No generation was ever saved, or [for that matter] destroyed, on dead testimony.”3 I think by “dead” he means the record of the remote past. We’re not fully accountable to that record, but we are to a living witness who bears living testimony to our living spirit. That’s when we reach the zenith of responsibility. We recognize that and perhaps we run from it. When a child runs away with his hands over his ears, what is happening? Doesn’t the child already pretty well know the message, even while he covers his ears and says, “I didn’t hear you?”
Heber C. Kimball, without being grammatical, put the point elegantly after the outpourings at the Nauvoo Temple. He said, “You cannot sin so cheap no more.” Many students have said to me over the years, “I’m afraid to pray because I’m afraid I won’t get an answer. I’m not sure I could handle that.” I have sometimes said, a little cruelly, “The problem may be exactly the reverse. You’re afraid to pray because you are afraid you will have an answer, and you already have a shrewd guess as to what it will be.” If we know what’s bad for us, we will neither listen to nor bear testimony. But if we know what’s good for us, we will. And our spirits know.
Hence, Brigham Young once said, “More testimonies are gained on the feet than on the knees.” By which he meant that when you are on record and in the presence of others, and are trying to be truthful, and you consult the depths of your own soul, you yourself may learn how profoundly you know.
Zina D. H. Young once walked into a room where there was a copy of the Book of Mormon on a windowsill. She had never seen it and, therefore, of course, had never read it. She walked over and felt a certain warmth and aura. She held the book and then hugged it, murmuring, “This is the truth, truth, truth!”4 Later, she read it. I would call that an “a priori” testimony. I know a man who knelt down to pray, “O God, is this book true?” and then interrupted himself: “Oh, never mind, I already know it’s true.”
A marvelous woman who read part of a chapter in a book–not really mine, I was only citing scripture–shook my hand to thank me. “You know,” she said, “I read almost all night, and I laughed all night.” That changed my expression. She said, “I don’t mean that the way it sounds. You see, I would say to myself, ‘I’ve always known that. But I didn’t know I knew’ (laugh).” She said, “It wasn’t the ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and it wasn’t the “Ho, hum.’ It was the ‘Ah ha’ experience.” Whenever that happens, there is an accompanying lift. It is exhilarating, and even things you’ve heard over and over have new zest and tingle and deepen understanding. Students have said to me and to my colleagues here, “Thank you for teaching me such and such.” But the “such and such” was something we did not know, or at least did not attempt to teach that day. A better voice than ours was whispering over our voice something that they were ripe and ready for. And it came.
Said the Prophet again, “All things whatsoever God in His infinite wisdom has seen fit to reveal to us while dwelling in mortality in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract, independent of affinity to this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirit precisely as though we had no bodies at all.” Like a laser beam, I suggest. “And those revelations that will save our spirits will save our bodies.”5
On the senses, a colleague of mine at an eastern university said to me one day, “Yes, I’ve heard you Mormons have a sixth sense. You do. It is the sense that enables you to swallow this nonsense called Mormonism.” Even if you conclude, with certain scientific naturalists, that anything that is nonsensory is nonsense, that is endorsement, in a measure, of your heritage. Said Erastus Snow, referring to the Prophet, “Joseph taught that the spirit of the Lord underlies all our natural senses, that is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. The spirit communicates with the spirit of man and enlivens all the other senses.”6 We are unique in this view.
Creative as well as scientific people prize accurate observation and all the instruments that have become available to intensify it, whether in the macrocosm or the microcosm. Such people also strive to express what they have learned either in math or in the creative arts, a fullness of expression in another language. This is a platform for scientific and aesthetic effort. The senses, far from being disparaged and denied, may thus be seen as eternal as the spirit. A famous example of logical positivism is “Can you verify that there are mountains on the other side of the moon?” They are presently unseeable. “Yes,” they say, “but in principle they are verifiable. One can conceive of the conditions under which they could be seen.” True. Someone who came back from space–a cosmonaut, I believe–was reported to have said that they didn’t find God out there. President Spencer W. Kimball commented that if they had stepped outside their space capsule, they might have.
God, angels, and spirits are, similarly, observable under certain circumstances, and in due time we will have the opportunity of confirmation through the senses as we now have of the spirit. Jesus did say, “Handle me, and see” (Luke 24:39).
Now, Lorenzo Snow: “We were selected, ordained, and set apart there. Where? In the prior life.”–according to our worthiness and preparation and training to come forth when our preparation fitted clearly into the great plan of our Father. And as we live worthy [and, I would say, perhaps not otherwise] the Holy Spirit brings this knowledge to this body, and that is the only way we become acquainted with the knowledge of our spiritual understanding. This body must get acquainted with former pre-existent experiences through being revealed to, and being made part of, this flesh.”7
Said Joseph F. Smith, “If Christ knew beforehand”–and he’s talking about this certain foreknowledge that Jesus must have had in order to volunteer for his mission–“If Christ knew, so did we. But in coming here we forgot all [so] that our agency might be free indeed to choose good or evil that we might merit the reward of our choice and conduct. But by the power of the Spirit in the redemption of Christ, through obedience, we often catch a spark from the awakened memories of the immortal soul which lights up our whole being as with the glory of our former home.”8 Yes, for now the spark. And someday, the whole flame.
Elder Parley P. Pratt, who gave this matter considerable thought, once wrote, “It is when we are off-guard that some of these insights spring up unbidden. You need to pay attention to them and try to remember them because they are fleeting and elusive.” But, said he, at night when you are approaching quiet slumber, for example, when the outward organs are resting, then “some faint outlines, some confused and half-defined recollections of that heavenly world may come. And those endearing scenes of the former estate enable spirit to commune with spirit. Soul blends with soul in all the raptures of mutual, pure and eternal love.”9
Said Brigham Young, “Recollect, Brothers and Sisters, that your spirit is pure and under the special control and influence of the [Holy] Spirit.
When evil is suggested to you, when it arises in your hearts, it is the temporal organization. When you are tempted, buffeted, and step out of the way inadvertently, when you are overtaken in a fault or commit an overt act unthinkingly, when you are full of evil passion and wish to yield to it, then stop and let [that’s different from “make”; it presupposes that the spirit wants this] the spirit which God has put into your tabernacle take the lead. If you do that, I will promise you that you will overcome all evil and obtain eternal lives. But many, very many, let the spirit yield to the body and are overcome and destroyed.10
So the spirit has a mind of its own, and it is strong, and it speaks with authority. The spirit has a mind of its own–it is saturated with intelligence. The spirit is what prevents you from sinning wholeheartedly.
Now what about authority? Do you want to hear the party line of those of us who get a bit paranoid because of abuse by the big person who has clout over us? I’ve often wanted to say that Jesus Christ never lords it over us, but under us. He comes down and lifts us up from below. What about that kind of authority? We sometimes repeat the party line we should reject: “Be independent! You don’t have to listen to anyone. What is this ‘Take my word for it’ stuff?” But we belong to a tradition where the word of the prophets is “Don’t just take my word for it. That is blind obedience.” How do we know a man is a prophet? Only when we are prophets ourselves. Only when we are actuated by the same spirit. And that’s the way we prove the prophetic mantle and how it applies to us.
Said the Prophet Joseph Smith after one of the most revelatory meetings in his life, “There was nothing made known to me or to these men [the Twelve] but what will be made known to all the saints of the last days so soon as they are prepared to receive.”11 This is the religion of every man. Not, “Take my word for my experience,” but, “Duplicate it in your own life.” How far do I go with this? All the way.
Let me then come to a close. I have hiked with my wife at night all the way from the base of what is known as Mount Sinai to the top (incidentally, with a very sore toe. Climbing hurts, and the more you climb, the more it hurts). We went up to where the air is thinner and the veil thinner. There isn’t time here to describe the feeling, but we were able to recollect there that Moses had face-to-face communion with God. He came back down and said to the children of Israel, in the name of the God whose name he knew, “Now, you have been invited to go back up with me.” And they said, “Thank you, no. That’s for prophets. That’s for people who are a bit fanatical. We will stay here, and you go up, Moses.” In his absence they built an idol. The power of religious impulses goes in many directions. They built an idol–a thing–and were denied the privileges Moses had (see D&C 84:23-25). That is what our generation is now doing again. We are staying down here below and then claiming superiority for our judgment in doing so.
I bear you my testimony that the ways of knowing are true. I bear testimony that there is locked in you, under amnesia, power greater than you can presently imagine. And I bear my testimony that if that is true, then you don’t need to go anywhere else to investigate, for it has reverberated in your souls. I pray that it may continue to reverberate in you as we move together into the twenty-first century.
1. Orson F. Whitney. In Improvement Era, 13:100-1.
2. Joseph Smith. In The Words of Joseph Smith, p. 237.
3. Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, p. 159.
4. Zina D. H. Young. In Young Woman’s Journal 4:318.
5. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1963), p. 355.
6. BYU Special Collections, MSS. 44, Folder 5.
7. Journal of John Whitaker, April 6, 1894.
8. Joseph Smith. In The Contributor, 4 (1883): 114-15.
9. Parley P. Pratt, Key to Theology, p. 119.
10. Brigham Young. In Journal of Discourses (Liverpool, England: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86) 2:224.
11. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet, p. 237.
“How We Know What We Know” was originally given as a devotional address at the BYU Marriott Center under the title “Reverberations of Truth.” It was adapted and reprinted in Charting a New Millennium, The Latter-day Saints in the Coming Century and is used here by permission.
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.