“Ye Cannot Know of Things Which Ye Do Not See”

Alan C. Miner

In a commentary dealing in part with the philosophies of Korihor, Daniel Peterson first quotes Stephen Robinson, who had the following to say:

The problem with scholarly religion, religion that has been carefully trimmed so that it conflicts with no empirical data, is that it inevitably makes scholarship the religion. . . . In the Church of the Scholars religion can make no claim unsupported by or contradicted by empirical evidence ("ye cannot know of things which ye do not see," Alma 30:15). But in what sense can this be called religion at all? As both the scriptures and the philosophers know, genuine faith is belief in the absence of evidence or even belief that contradicts the evidence. The Church of the Scholars is not a faith at all, but merely intellectual acquiescence to the prevailing scholarly winds. [It] proposes the ultimate oxymoron--empirical religion, a faith-less faith. (Stephen E. Robinson, Review of Dan Vogel, ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scriptures, in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 3, 1991, p. 316)

According to Peterson, professor Robinson is correct when he reports the scriptural teaching to be that "genuine faith is belief in the absence of evidence or even belief that contradicts the evidence." "Let no man deceive himself," wrote Paul. "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (1 Corinthians 3:18-19). "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). As every reader of the Bible should know, "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1; compare Ether 12:5). "Faith," Alma taught the impoverished Zoramites, "is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen which are true" (Alma 32:21). In this life, "we walk by faith, not by sight" (1 Corinthians 5:7). This is a truth recognized by most, if not all, serious religious thinkers. "Philosophical theology," says Mortimer Adler, "may carry one's mind to the edge of religious belief, but that is the near edge of a chasm that can only be crossed to the far edge by a leap of faith that transcends reason." And salvation is to be obtained only on the chasm's far side. God removed the sins of Enos in the Book of Mormon "because of [his] faith in Christ, whom [he had] never before heard nor seen" (Enos 1:8). When the brother of Jared saw the pre-mortal Savior, "he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting" (Ether 3:19). "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But can faith sometimes actually contradict the available evidence? Certainly it can. And, often, it should. Apart from human questions, concerns, and interpretations, "evidence," as such, does not exist. Its recognition depends upon human minds. Its marshalling into arguments is inevitably the act of human personalities that may or may not be stable or disinterested or competent, personalities inescapably immersed in the assumptions of a given time and place. What counts as relevant data and conclusive reasoning varies, within limits, according to many factors, including cultural prejudice and personal psychology. This is true even of fields like mathematics and logic, to say nothing of areas less susceptible to definitive demonstration like philosophy, religion, and history. It is only with great care and with appropriate humility that we should identify and weigh the data on the most important questions. In Shakespeare's great play, part of Othello's problem is that, confronted with apparent "evidence," he surrenders his intuitively certain knowledge of Desdemona's character. Tragically, he learns only too late that the "evidence had misrepresented reality, and that Iago, the "friend" who had simply put the "facts" together and let them speak for themselves, was neither unbiased nor honest. Thus, under certain circumstances it may be rational and entirely right to believe against the seeming "evidence." . . .

Scriptural faith must sometimes go beyond the apparent evidence. "Ye receive no witness, " wrote Moroni, "until after the trail of your faith" (Ether 12:6). Job, for instance, had abundant reason to doubt the goodness of God, but declared, "though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15). This is the same faith that millions of devout Christians and Jews have felt when, against all the evidence of wars and concentration camps and sickness and injustice and premature death, they have nonetheless affirmed the existence of a benevolent God. When Peter began to sink into the Sea of Galilee, the Savior not only caught him by the hand but rebuked him: "O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" (Matthew 14:31). But Peter had good reason for doubt. People simply do not walk on water; the evidence is, overwhelmingly, against it. So, too, Abraham, "the father of the faithful," acted not only against his general beliefs but against the specific earlier promises of God when asked to do so by divine revelation: "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son" (Hebrews 11:17). And how many believers in the resurrection have actually seen a dead human body arise from the grave, alive again? . . . True religion, therefore, has always involved something of a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith." "If we must not act save on a certainty," Pascal [said], "we ought not to act on religion, for it is not certain. [Daniel C. Peterson, "Editors Introduction: Questions to Legal Answers" in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 4, F.A.R.M.S., 1992, pp. lxiv-lxix]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary