Faith, Reason, Knowledge, and Truth

Faith, Reason, Knowledge, and Truth

Richard N. Williams

The premise of this essay is that a glorious restoration has
taken place in our time. We have come to understand that the history of the
world is marked in dispensation units. The world has suffered through periods
of relative darkness, ignorance, and error. It has also been blessed with
periods of truth and light. You and I have the blessed privilege of living in
the full light of day—the dispensation of the fulness of times. This, as
they say, changes everything. The scripture in Isaiah 29:14 and repeated in 2
Nephi 27:26 concerning the “marvelous work and a wonder” of the restoration
is well known to all of us. We are not as familiar with the verse that follows.
I quote from 2 Nephi 27:27, where the prophet spoke of those who are not
enlightened nor made joyful at the news of the restoration of the fulness of
the gospel. These people respond: “Surely, your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay.” This is a powerful metaphor.

The implications of the
restored gospel are dramatic and far-reaching. Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder Dallin H. Oaks have pointed out that
a notable aspect of the apostasy was that ideas and philo­sophies prevalent
in that day and largely Greek in origin were incorporated into the doctrine of
the church.[1] Since religion went significantly wrong in large part because of those ideas
and presuppositions, we Latter-day Saints ought to be as wary of accepting them
in our academic disciplines and social institutions as we are in our religion.

The restored gospel of Jesus Christ has the potential to
redefine and redeem our understanding of faith, reason, knowledge, and truth in
ways that liberate us from problems that, lacking the restoration perspective,
continue to vex and trouble the world and, too often, the souls of many of us.

Among all the factors contributing to the apostasy, three
are preeminent: first, the loss of the understanding of the true nature of God
and thus of our own nature and purpose; second, the loss of apostolic authority
and the special witness it provides; and, third, the
loss of the fulness of the gifts of the Spirit. It is interesting to me that
these three things were among the very first restored in our dispensation.
These three essential characteristics of the true church bear directly on our
experience and understanding of faith, reason, knowledge, and truth.

Faith and Reason

Discourse about the relationship between faith and reason is
centuries old, very sophisticated, and finely nuanced. What I present here will
be incomplete, but I trust not misleading. I believe that discussions of faith
and reason have suffered over the centuries because they have not been informed
by the truths of the restored gospel. When thus informed, the classic and
timeworn tensions between faith and reason disappear. Faith is seen in a new
light. In turn, the proper understanding of faith and reason casts new light on
common understandings of knowledge and truth.

It seems unarguable that reason—our capacity and
tendency to “make sense” and to engage in consistent, meaningful
understanding and expression—is intrinsic to our nature. Scholars have
had a tendency, however, to privilege reason over other expressions of our
nature. The effect has been that reason has achieved unassailed authority in
matters of knowledge and truth. In recent years various postmodern movements
have mounted serious challenges to the hegemony of reason, noting that it is as
capable of being deployed for oppressive as for noble purposes. In my own
scholarly career, I have enjoyed the luxury of using powerful postmodern
arguments against the excesses of modern rationalism and then using powerful
rationalist arguments against the excesses of postmodernism. Through this
endeavor I have come to the conclusion that reason as we contemporaneously
understand and experience it is fallible, but mostly not pernicious. It is like
any other human language—good for certain things, not so good for others.

Early in the Christian era, attempts were made to reconcile
the life-changing power of faith with the compelling persuasive power of
reason. Most attempts at reconciliation during the apostate period had one of
two results. One result was that faith and reason were reconciled because the
foundations of faith were shown ultimately to be reasonable—as in those
views that fold easily into a general “natural law” perspective.
Those aspects of faith that were reasonable were retained, not as faith, but as
part of reason; what aspects of faith seemed not reasonable were dismissed as mystical. Thus faith and mysticism, as the “unreasonable,”
became strongly connected. The second approach upheld both faith and reason as
different approaches to knowledge, ultimately leading to different kinds of
knowledge. Reason was thought to lead to certainty, scientific knowledge, and
knowledge of the essential. Faith was thought to lead to knowledge of the
religious, of that which, by implication, cannot be known with rational
certainty. It is easy to see that these two approaches to reconciling faith and
reason are essentially the same. Briefly put, reason trumps faith.

But the reconciliation thus achieved has never been a happy
one. As the philosophy of mind progressed and as science and technology
developed, reason came to be more and more powerful and persuasive, whereas
faith came to be concomitantly less persuasive and the sort of knowledge it
provided more mystical and ephemeral. Finally, with the Enlightenment,
knowledge was grounded ultimately in what was intuitively perceived as true by
the rational mind, and real knowledge became associated with rational
certainty—grounded in that which was rationally and logically impossible
to doubt. The unintended result of this powerful analytic approach to reason
was that faith came to be understood in opposition to certainty and was thus
always vulnerable to doubt. In fact, faith, in a very real sense, came to be
that which one believes in the face of doubt.

Thus it is fair to say that the modern view is essentially
that reason and logic ultimately ground knowledge and truth, whereas faith is
what we are forced to rely on when we lack indubitable certainty. Faith, on
this view, is a sort of positive thinking, what we cling to when we do not
know. It is a believing haunted from its fringes by doubt. This is the seemingly
paradoxical stuff that many self-styled intellectuals exult in—a seedbed
of tragic heroism characterizing the lives of thoughtful persons. This view
has, unfortunately, even found its way into Latter-day Saint culture. However,
this understanding of faith and reason is unsatisfactory because it obscures
the nature of and attenuates the power of faith. Furthermore, it does not
square with the increased knowledge provided by the restoration.

If we push the traditional
understanding of faith and reason just a bit, we arrive at some rather odd
conclusions. If faith is what we “settle for” in the absence of
knowledge, then the more we know the less faith we need, or, indeed, the less
faith we can have. The more faith we have, the less we know. God, who has all
knowledge, has no faith at all. This line of thinking feeds the stereotype that
only the ignorant need or have faith. Religion is a crutch, you know. Sometimes
this view of faith provides fuel for faith crises, particularly for people who
base their identity and worth on their intellectual powers of reason and logic.
We Latter-day Saints are in a peculiar position vis-î-vis this understanding of
faith because we often begin our most poignant expressions of our faith with
the words “I know.” I believe we can enrich faith and expand our view
of knowledge and truth by entertaining an alternative conception of faith and
its relation to reason. For example, the idea of faith as what we cling to in
the absence of knowledge does not work very well scripturally. Permit me to
paraphrase Hebrews 11:3–5:

Through [what we cling to when we don’t know] we understand
that the worlds were framed by the word of God. . . .
By [what we cling to when we don’t know] Abel . . . obtained witness that he
was righteous. . . . By [what we cling to when we don’t
know] Enoch was translated.

Nevertheless, this definition of faith and its presumed
contrast with reason is so strong that it even moves us to translate the Doctrine
and Covenants admonition to “seek learning, even by study and also by
faith” (D&C 88:118) into a proclamation of our belief in two types of
knowledge—one coming by reason and one by faith. Often, even at Brigham
Young University, we academics divide truth neatly into sacred truths and
secular truths. In our reason-driven intellectual pursuits we are on the trail
of what we call secular truths, and we even claim to have found some. Although
this is a convenient way of speaking about our disciplines, we should ponder
why the phrase secular truth is not found in scripture. In fact,
my computer tells me that truth is never used in scripture in the plural except
in two passages (D&C 52:17; 66:1), both referring to things the Lord had
previously revealed and was recalling in the present. Rather than a scriptural
distinction between types of truths, we find the Lord’s proclamation
that “all things unto [Him] are spiritual” (D&C 29:34). From Doctrine
and Covenants 29:31–35 we learn that there are temporal (not secular) and
spiritual created things, but this does not necessarily imply that there
are secular truths.
If the distinction between sacred and secular truth were a genuine
epistemological watershed, we might reasonably expect in holy writ at least a
mention of it. Indeed, most scriptural references to the secular are quite
negative. Sometimes we may receive through spiritual means answers to temporal
questions and problems. However, it never seems to flow the other direction.  This would seem to imply that all
things are indeed spiritual, even when their application is temporal. It may be
that, from the perspective of the restoration, the categories of faith, reason,
and truth do not have quite the same meaning we have received from our
intellectual traditions.

In place of the common conceptual dimension anchored by
faith at one end and reason at the other, I suggest that there are really two
dimensions. It might be helpful to picture them as perpendicular to one
another. One dimension is anchored on one end by reason and on the other end by
its opposite: irrationality, promiscuous subjectivity, or even solipsism. The
other dimension is anchored on one end by faith and on the other by the
opposite of faith. I have pondered a bit about what the opposite of faith is. I
believe the anchor opposite faith is darkness, nihilism, despair—that
state of the soul that comes from living “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; Alma 41:11; see Helaman 13:38; Mormon 2:12–13). To
portray faith and reason in this relationship leads us to the conclusion that
faith is not what one settles for in the absence of reason and knowledge; it is
a type of knowledge, sure and trustworthy and eminently attainable. Portrayed
in this way, one could very well have great faith and be also entirely
reasonable and rational. That is to be strived for.

The other three quadrants created by our axes are
interesting. One can have faith and be irrational. This is one stereotype of
religious people. Depending on what standards are used to judge rationality,
this might be a positive or a problematic lifestyle. One can also have little
faith and yet be very reasonable, rational, and logical. We meet many such
persons in academic life and in the broader culture. Finally, there is a
possibility of being both dark and despairing as well as beyond the pale of

I want to consider briefly the scriptural case for the
suggestion that faith is not merely a state of mind contrived to fill the void
created by the absence of reasoned knowledge but rather a very important kind
of knowledge. First, I want to consider chapters 30 to 35 of Alma in the Book
of Mormon. These chapters, I believe, must be read as a whole. Chapter 29
brings the mission to the Lamanites to a close. Chapter 36 begins the account
of Alma’s blessing of his sons, and the account of the Lamanite wars follows.
Chapters 30 to 35 have a separate message.

In chapter 30 we meet Korihor, the antichrist. He propounded
insidious and destructive doctrine. However, he “had much success,”
and what he taught was “pleasing unto the carnal [that is, earthly] mind”
(v. 53). Much of Korihor’s preaching centered on the nature of knowledge. His
major premise was that we can know only what we can
see. From this it followed that no one can know the future and that prophecy is
impossible and, thus, merely foolish tradition. From this line of analysis his
other doctrines followed. His arguments were both reasonable and logical. If
they were to be faulted or refuted, such refutation had to be aimed at the
major premise—the starting point of the argument.

Significantly, this is always where reason shows itself to
be finite and vulnerable. In chapter 30 Alma immediately responded to Korihor
by challenging his starting point and offering an alternative major premise.
This teaches us something very important about faith and its relation to reason
and knowledge. Interestingly, chapter 31 introduces us to the Zoramites, who
espoused religious doctrines similar to Korihor’s. They, too, believed that the
words of the prophets were foolish traditions, and they were proud “that
their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew
nothing about” (Alma 31:22).

Korihor and the Zoramites so persuasively presented their
view of faith, knowledge, and truth that Alma, as well as Moroni, sensed that
it needed a powerful response. It is no coincidence, then, that what follows in
chapter 32 is perhaps the most profound exposition on faith in all of
scripture. It is a discourse on faith and knowledge. Space will not permit the
complete analysis it deserves, but I have come to believe that Alma 32 is a
discourse on two types of “perfect” knowledge. One type propounded by
Korihor is knowledge grounded purely in sensory experience and reason. The
other type of knowledge is grounded in a different kind of experience and is
manifested as faith.

Alma begins the discourse by reminding us that “there
are many [including, notably, Korihor] who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a
sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe”
(v. 17). He then makes a subtle but important point bearing on the nature of
faith, reason, belief, and knowledge. He says that this attitude is not faith
because “if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he
knoweth it” (v. 18). We can easily read this as the old contrast between
knowing and clinging to faith that we have come to expect. However, Alma might
also be pointing out that what we see or otherwise experience
sensorially—for example, a visual fact or event—is not the sort of
thing that requires belief or produces faith. If I meet a friend on the
sidewalk, he will not ask, “Do you believe I am here?” If he were to
do that, I would try to get him professional help. By the same token, when I
bump my head, no one asks whether I believe I really bumped it or whether I
believe I am in pain. Faith, as usually understood, and belief are irrelevant
to such experiences. What matters is what they mean for us
and what we do about them. It is not by seeing a sign but by responding
to it that we enter the domain where faith can be understood.

Alma goes on in verse 19 to point out that lacking this sort
of sensory knowledge and residing in belief is a great blessing, a protection
from the condemnation that comes from sinning against certain kinds of
knowledge. The veil between this life and the next is, it seems, a great
protection to people like me who might not be quite able to stop sinning, even
in the factual and unarguable presence of God himself. I am grateful to live in
a world of belief and faith for now while I prepare to live better.

In that verse we all know so well, Alma teaches us that
faith, like belief, is not to have this sort of “perfect knowledge”
(Alma 32:21). Faith is like belief in this way, but Alma makes it clear that it
is not merely belief. Faith grows into a knowledge that is, in its crucial attributes,
perfect. In contrast to knowledge founded on what we see, and also subtly
different from mere belief, faith is allied with “hope for things which
are not seen, which are true.” Faith thus is not a clinging to in the
absence of knowledge of truth but a hope for what is true. A skeptic might well
want to call Alma’s bluff at this point: “Okay, how can you hope for what
is true if you don’t already know it?” (Korihor was a clever man.) The
answer is that faith leads to and indeed already is just such knowledge because
it is the hope of truth; if it were not, it would not be real hope. Faith is not a placeholder for truth. As we learn later in the chapter,
it is more like the seed of truth—alive, growing, pushing upward. After
reminding us that God speaks to us and after reiterating the importance of
being humble, Alma asks us in verse 27 to begin not with mere belief but with a
“desire to believe”—the first stirrings of faith. He invited us
“to an experiment.” Note that an experiment is not the same as sight
or rationality. It engages the entire person.

If we exercise our faculties and develop the moral character
necessary for the experiment to work, the seed, which is the true word of
Christ, “swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow” (v. 30).
Alma then makes the crucial distinction: “Are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea”
(v. 31). And in conclusion:

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge
is perfect in that thing, . . . for ye know that the word hath swelled your
souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth
begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand. O then, is not this
I say unto you, Yea. (Alma

We have come a long distance in our understanding of faith.
We have come from faith not being a perfect knowledge to a knowledge
which is perfect. I believe that this entire process whereby
we begin to experience the fruits of truth and to know one thing and then another
is faith. Understood as this process, faith leads us to a
knowledge as sure and as perfect as any we could ever want. Faith could
not become knowledge unless it already was knowledge. In a very real sense
faith is knowledge—not the knowledge whose claim to perfection is in sensory
experience or in rational argument, but the knowledge whose claim to perfection
is in discernible and undeniable experience. Note the image Alma uses to
describe the experience of this sure knowledge: “Ye have tasted this
” (v. 35). There is nothing unsure about the experience of
taste. Alma’s use of taste is significant. Psychologists have discovered
many visual illusions that demonstrate that what we see is often not what is
really there. However, not a single “taste illusion” has ever been

Interestingly, after having told us that our knowledge is
perfect in verse 34, Alma says in verses 35 and 36 that it is not perfect and
that we still need faith. So we have a knowledge that is perfect and not
perfect. I take this to mean that this entire process of faith gives us
knowledge that is perfect in the sense of being sure, nothing lacking, but that
it is not perfect in the sense of coming to an end. Here again the contrast
with knowledge anchored only in reason is sharp. As reason is understood in our
modern age, the point of reason or logical analysis is to bring a question or
argument to a close. Having made the logical argument, there is nothing more to
know on the matter—that is the goal of perfect reason. As children of the
eternal God, with a destiny described as “eternal progression,” what
might we expect but a perfect knowledge that continues, a knowing that is a way
of life—we might say eternal life—the rewards of which are fruit “most
precious, . . . sweet above all that is sweet,” so that we can be “filled,
that [we] hunger not, neither shall [we] thirst” (v. 42).

Chapters 33 and 34 of Alma are aimed at explaining how this
faith experiment works, how we know by faith. Chapter 33 teaches of the role of
scriptures and prayer. Chapter 34 reframes the question of faith. The question
the Zoramites had was how to plant the seed and do the experiment. Amulek, no
doubt moved upon by the Spirit, tells us what the real question of faith is: “And
we have beheld that the great question which is in your minds is whether the
word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ” (Alma

Faith is anchored in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the
knowledge of him is both sure and possible. The contrast between faith as sure
knowledge and the knowledge reason can provide is evident when we compare
Amulek’s testimony of Christ as the anchor to sure knowledge with the
conclusion of many Nephites just before His coming: “And they began to
reason and to contend among themselves, saying: that it is not reasonable that
such a being as a Christ shall come” (Helaman 16:17–18). Not “reasonable,”
but nonetheless true.


As noted above, historically, faith and
reason have been distinguished by the different types of knowledge each
produces. This unhappy resolution meant that reason was granted
preeminence over faith, laying claim to certain knowledge. Faith became the
absence of knowledge. However, there is another distinction between the sort of
knowledge associated with faith and the sort associated with reason. We can
perhaps understand the distinction better by referring to a distinction made in
Latinate languages between two types of knowledge. I will refer to the Spanish
verbs saber and conocer.
Although the difference is complex, at least it can be said that saber means to know such things as facts, to assert propositional knowledge, and to
know that something is the case. Conocer, on the other hand, is “to
be intimately acquainted with.” It is used to express knowledge of
persons, places, and experiences. I might say that I know my wife, and no one
could reasonably ask, “Are you sure?” This kind of knowing is a type
to which traditional issues of rational certainty do not apply. And yet it is
no less sure than propositional knowledge. Indeed, in many ways it is more sure. We must remember that our faith is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith in a person is a very different
thing from faith that some proposition is true.

The perfect knowledge of reason is only as perfect as its anchors—those
premises from which all processes of reason must begin. If the premises are
true, reason may take us to truth—a propositional truth giving us
confidence that our sense of the world corresponds with what is. The problem is
that all reason must begin with premises that reason itself cannot
validate—except on other premises, thus begging the question. If Alma was
right, faith leads us to another kind of perfect knowledge—to
truth—and reason, in a way, leads us away. That is, once we know what is
true, reason provides a wonderful tool for sorting out our obligations,
anticipating consequences, and persuading others that what we know is true.
Truth, I am convinced, can be rendered reasonable, but it does not arise from

For example, the truth of Mormonism does not rest on reason.
We do not draw our authority, our identity, or our mission from any set of
propositions or from any interpretation of doctrine. We do not draw upon
theology at all as justification for our truth claims. The truth of Mormonism
rests on the occurrence of certain events. Chief among the founding events are
these: the Father and the Son either appeared to Joseph Smith in New York or
they did not; there either were gold plates holding a history of real people or
there were not; apostles and prophets laid hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery
or they did not. We can go beyond this. The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ
itself rests on the occurrence of events. There was a Man, Jesus, or there was
not; he overcame the whole of sin and darkness in the garden or he did not; the
tomb was empty or it was not. The truth of an event is very different from the
truth of a proposition. The truth of propositions is established by reason and
argument, the difficulty of which I have just described. The
truth of events is established by witnesses. Because of the restoration
of the true gospel, we are blessed with an abundance of witnesses. This is why
the apostolic authority of special witnesses and the restoration of the gifts
of the Spirit are essential to the true church. Scriptures also witness of
these things, and we Latter-day Saints have an embarrassment of riches where
scripture is concerned. In this context, faith is not what we cling to when we
do not know truth; rather, faith is the knowledge of truth nourished by good
acts. It is strengthened by witnesses capable of penetrating our very souls and
culminates in the palpable fruits of sure and certain experience.

Faith is neither a placeholder for knowledge nor what we
cling to in its absence. The common reading of faith as a placeholder led me
for some years to misread a very important passage from Hebrews: “Faith is
the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”
(Hebrews 11:1). I used to translate this scripture to mean faith is only
evidence, not the real thing—it is only a hope that unseen substances are
real. But I misread. Straightforwardly it says faith is substance, it is
evidence—the evidence Alma talked about, the evidence God gives us by
many witnesses, the evidence we give to each other, and what we evidence in our
own lives. It is not the substitute for things hoped for but their very
substance. Faith as this substance “maketh an anchor to the souls of men,
which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works”
(Ether 12:4).

One of the supernal blessings of the restored gospel is
knowing that the anchor of faith is itself anchored in the embodied God whose
existence is not established by reason but whose literal existence itself
grounds our knowledge of him. He only is the God who can say:

Arise and come forth . . . that ye may thrust your hands
into my side, and . . . feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my
feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole
earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world. (3 Nephi 11:14)

Faith in him is in
every sense truth. It is knowledge perfect in every way.

It is true that in this life we must live by faith. We are
consigned to live outside the presence of our God. The purpose of life is to be
proven even as we prove God’s promises. God declared:

We will make an earth
whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will
do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them. (Abraham 3:24–25)

The test of life is to do the will of our God. Faith is not
the part of the test designed to make it difficult to return to him; it is what
our God has given us to make it possible to return to him. The trial of faith
is not to see what we will do without him but to see what we can do with him. I
believe we are asked to live by faith not so much to pass the test of being on
our own but because we need to learn things of eternal and enduring import that
we cannot do alone. We must learn to know how to respond to witnesses. We must
learn to know in the very important way faith makes it possible to
know—which kind of learning might not develop otherwise. We must live by
faith. For this I am most grateful, because to live by faith is to live with God.

The Savior has said, “I am . . . the truth” (John
14:6). He also warned us: “Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my
name in their lips” (D&C 63:61).

Let us, then, be clear in our vision as we pursue and
proclaim truth. After being involved for years as a scholar in issues of faith,
reason, knowledge, and truth, I have learned that it is much easier for the
Lord to make a good man or woman smart than it is to make a smart man or woman
good. May we be protected from crises in our faith occasioned by the precepts
of men. May we experience faith as a blessing and not
as a burden.


[1]Neal A.
Maxwell, “From the Beginning,” Ensign, November 1993,
18–20; Dallin H. Oaks, “Apostasy and Restoration,” Ensign,
May 1995, 84–87.