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Humility & Belief

When a matched set of LDS missionaries came to our door last year, my wonderful Dave invited them inside for a long chat. They kept in touch for a while after that, but eventually gave up on coaxing him into their fold.

The exchange below was so lovely that I asked Dave’s permission to share it here. The names of the LDS guys are obfuscated, naturally. If you would like to read the text they are referring to, Alma 32 from the Book of Mormon, here’s a link to it.

For me, this is a beautiful example of, rather than just slamming the door on others who wish to share differing points of view (literally or figuratively), if you engage in respectful dialog, everyone involved might benefit.



Hey Dave.

This is Elder Bob  and Elder Charles.

We just wanted to send you one of our favorite sections of the Book of Mormon. It’s Alma 32. It’s a great chapter about how we can gain a testimony.

We’d love if you read that and gave us your thoughts on it.



Dear Brothers Bob and Charles,

Friendly greetings, and thanks for recommending Alma 32.

I can see how this chapter is meaningful for you — it describes how a small belief can grow into a strong belief, which should be a comfort for all believers. The message is that strong belief needs only a certain starting point and repeated exposure to the belief.

Alma 32 says that the starting point is a state of mind called humility. Humility is associated with receptivity or a desire to believe. In other words, you need at least something like a weak mental orientation toward the belief in question. Given the seed of an initial orientation watered by repeated exposure, belief can grow into certainty, with the rewards being whatever fruit the belief promises.

What Alma 32 does not mention is that this process is not unique to LDS beliefs. This process of belief amplification is part of our common human nature. We see it happening in religion, politics, business, science, and social relationships. A typical progression might go something like this:

  1. That’s an interesting theory.
  2. It has merit.
  3. It might be correct.
  4. It’s not a theory, it’s an absolute truth.

In other words, if you already lean toward a belief of any kind and then are exposed to it enough, especially within a community of like believers, conjecture can become certainty.

The chapter says that humility has aspects of repentance, wisdom, and learning (understood here to mean repentance of non-LDS doctrine, wisdom about LDS doctrine, and learning about LDS doctrine). There is another aspect of humility that is not mentioned in Alma 32, and that is honesty.

Hubris says “I have the truth,” when humble honesty says “I don’t know yet.”

The problem is that belief is an internal mental state, while our shared reality is external to all of us. Obtaining certainty in our beliefs doesn’t necessarily guarantee congruence with our shared reality. Because of misalignments between belief systems and reality, every religion ends up with internal problems that have to be explained somehow.

An honest admission that “I don’t know” allows us to open our eyes and search broadly for truth wherever it might be. To judge the world’s hundreds of religions honestly and fairly, I would need to study and pray about each of their scriptures with an equally receptive mind. If I’ve pre-judged the value of the contestants, then I’m only conducting a kangaroo court in my mind. Reality can be discovered through honest inquiry, but can’t be created by decision, evident by the mutual contradictions of the world’s religions, each claiming to be the exclusive guardian of truth.

My spiritual path might not be right for everyone. It might not be right for you. It’s disturbing and sometimes frightening to have to say “I don’t know” about the big questions in life. And it takes a lot of work to study our shared reality in all its manifestations without prejudice. That can be stressful, and Alma 32 offers a way out — if you start with a little belief in any religious theology, you can nurture that belief and eventually not have to say “I don’t know” quite as much. Whether or not the belief accords with reality doesn’t matter so much; any belief can relieve the anxiety of the unknown.

I used to have a strong Christian testimony, but I never could understand why a religion, if based on truth and reality, had so many internal contradictions that had to be explained and defended. It’s not specific to any one religion — every religious system has problem areas that eternally occupy their apologists.

My life changed when I stopped trying to perfect my faith in one religion and focused instead on Reality, which to me means whatever facts are discovered to be the same no matter who searches for them. I had to give up my prior religious life and practices, which was very painful. I had to find a new way to relate to the world, but it was worth it.

I could not easily recommend that you do what I did. You can do a lot of good things and derive much benefit from participating in an organized religion, and you can do that regardless of what you believe happened with the founders hundreds of years ago. There’s no reason to throw that away unless your “shelf is breaking” and you can’t continue as you are.

Now I have a new testimony. I have elevated our shared reality to the top of my value hierarchy, and now I no longer have to strain at believing. I no longer have to defend truth because anybody can find it. I no longer have to interpret facts and rationalize contradictions because truth is not self-contradictory. I no longer feel weak in my faith because it’s effortless to believe what’s real.

In making this transition, I never had to give up one iota of reverent, worshipful feelings about the origins of the universe; I never felt morally adrift; and I never felt any diminished sense of the sacred. For me, I have found the path of truth, honesty, and a more practical sense of what salvation means for all of us.

Thanks for sharing. With all sorts of good wishes,