Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University student Tyler Mercer is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
A few weeks ago the executive editor of the online magazine Salon paraphrased a Mormon scholar's suggestion that the Latter-day Saint faith “had never claimed that its outlandish theology was plausible … only that it was true.”
The passing reference to Latter-day Saint epistemology was proffered in service of a different point; but, it raises the question — how do Latter-day Saints know what they know?
Despite our friend at Salon's suggestion to the contrary, Latter-day Saints don’t simply posit truth over plausibility.
Rather, Latter-day Saint epistemology involves a gradual acquisition of faith-based knowledge. The process might be characterized as incremental faith, or, translated into theological jargon, incremental fideism — the supersedence of faith over reason, but incrementally rather than globally, and followed by an increase in knowledge and therefore reason.
Through this process, individuals progress “into all truth” without abandoning rationality, but by building it concurrently with faith.
Incremental fideism, as found in Latter-day Saint teachings, does not altogether collapse the tension between faith and reason, but uses the tension as a healthy epistemological framework that is both ecologically valid and rigorously actionable.
In some ways, it is similar to ideas put forth by the philosopher William James, who argues that faith’s usefulness extends beyond reason.
James discusses a rock climber who finds himself with no way forward other than to leap across a gap — a leap in which reason alone does not assure him success. James argues that it is in the climber’s benefit to exercise faith and believe he can make the jump. Even if he ultimately fails attempting the jump, it is a better choice than to not believe, because if he does not believe he is guaranteed that he will not survive. Faith, on the other hand, affords him at least a chance of survival. In James’ words, “believe, and you shall be right, for you shall save yourself; doubt, and you shall again be right, for you shall perish. The only difference is that to believe is greatly to your advantage.”
This scenario makes faith a useful survival tool when reason falters, because through faith one may reach a conclusion that lies beyond the current range of one's reason. However, it is limited, in that it does little to prove the truth of theological claims. I believe Latter-day Saint teachings avoid this limitation by employing faith in a manner that is similar to what philosophers call fideism.
This is the proposition that faith supersedes reason in all cases and without exception, and does not need to be justified rationally. Søren Kierkegaard, a proponent of this model, wrote that “faith does not need (proof); aye, it must even regard the proof as its enemy.” However, one could find many reasons that might explain why someone who claims to be a fideist believes in God. Each of these explanations is, to some extent, an application of reason that led them to faith.
Incremental fideism, on the other hand, constitutes applying reason carefully, but occasionally being willing to go slightly beyond what reason dictates. Think of Indiana Jones as he steps out into the breach — trusting, and, after he has exercised his faith — to find his feet hitting a hidden bridge.
A Latter-day Saint's faith grows gradually as we learn the truth of what we have exercised faith in. Like Indiana, we do not know that the ground will continue, rather each step is an act of willful faith that builds on and extends beyond our reason and past experience. Confidence and plausibility, however, grow with each step.
As Steven Mortensen explains, the process is very similar to the hypothesis-testing approach of the scientific method. Indeed, an oft-quoted sermon recorded in the Book of Mormon describes the Latter-day Saint model for the acquisition of spiritual knowledge as “an experiment of (the) goodness (of God’s word).” However, the scientific method is designed such that the seeker of truth actively attempts to disprove his or her ideas, which means that it can be applied by a skeptic — one who withholds trust. Incremental fideism, on the other hand, requires trust, similar to developing a relationship with another person.
While the phrase “incremental fideism” does not itself appear in latter-day scripture, the idea of incremental fideism can be found throughout both the LDS standard works (the faith’s canonical books of scripture) and the teachings of modern church leaders. The ancient Book of Mormon prophet Alma compares the word of God to a seed and describes a hypothetical experiment in which a person plants the seed in their heart — believing, but not knowing, that it is good. The person nourishes the word through exercising faith — that is, by acting in accordance with the word of God they have “planted” in their heart. As the person does this, the word begins to “swell” and “enlighten (his or her) understanding” and through this the person is assured of the word’s veracity.
In incremental fideism, one can exercise faith in several principles from different religions — and indeed, seekers of truth often do — and find those which “enlighten our understanding.” By acting in accordance with what is revealed through this process of enlightenment, one can continue to grow in knowledge and understanding of correct principles.
It is ecologically valid, in that it accurately reflects how people often come to their spiritual beliefs; I and many other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have come to know truths about God through this model. Skeptics might view this process as simply the result of confirmation bias and the resolution of cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias, according to psychology scholars Saundra K. Ciccarelli and J. Noland White, is “the tendency to search for evidence that fits one’s beliefs while ignoring any evidence to the contrary.”
It could be argued that this process is really just a means to rationalize "outlandish theology" to resolve cognitive dissonance. But such an explanation fails to account for what I call "divine course-correction," where God seeks to correct or change an individual’s incorrect decisions, conclusions or ideas, rather than confirm them. This is what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. Many Latter-day Saints report experiences of this nature — God changing one’s paradigm or “correcting” one’s biases rather than confirming them.21 comments on this story
Mormon theology may seem “outlandish” to some, but upon deeper investigation, Latter-day Saints strike a balance between faith and reason through the process of incremental fideism. This is perhaps one reason that, in contrast to perceptions that education reduces faith, higher education levels in the Latter-day Saint tradition correlate with increased involvement in the church. For example,according to Pew data, "Mormons who have graduated from college display the highest levels of religious commitment (84 percent) followed by those with some college education (75 percent)."
This faith provides a way to gradually acquire knowledge regarding God and implement this knowledge; this faith is not blind or devoid of reason — rather, it is a faith that encourages rationality to grow in tandem.