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Nine Moons » Blog Archive : I Don’t Know Why We Can’t Say “I Don’t Know.” » I Don’t Know Why We Can’t Say “I Don’t Know.”

I Don’t Know Why We Can’t Say “I Don’t Know.”

Rusty - March 16, 2006

I recently sat in on a discussion with a newly-reactivating member of our ward in which the missionaries were reviewing basic gospel concepts and doctrines. I was impressed that she had the humility to invite the missionaries to teach her such things considering she grew up in the Church. It quickly became apparent that she had grown up with many false assumptions which she attributed to her parents, church leaders and other members. As is often the case, too many bad experiences with individuals of influence yields an estrangement from the Church and its teachings.

The discussion in which I participated was about the afterlife (spirit world, 3 degrees, exaltation, etc.). As she was trying to nail down exactly what the spirit world would look like and exactly how we’d be living in the Terrestrial Kingdom (or whatever) it became clear that not enough people in her past had said the words “I don’t know” but rather filled in the cracks with well-meaning anecdotes, myths and/or false doctrines. And when something doesn’t add up it’s easy to become confused and/or disenfranchised with the system.

I don’t know how many examples I’ve heard/read of this happening and it makes me wonder what would the result have been if the authority said “I don’t know, that’s a good question” rather than “because they were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence” or “because there were more women in Utah at that time than men” or “because of the caffeine content” or even “because he sinned/wants to sin and needs a way to justify it.”

Why can’t we more often admit it when we don’t know something? My feeling is that it stems from one of three things:

1) Pride. Smart people have answers.

2) Genuine confusion as to what is established truth and what is anecdote/myth/fiction.

3) We have the “Fullness of the Gospel” therefore we should be able to answer every question.

I suggested to her that a significant percentage of what she was taught about the afterlife was speculation (masked as doctrine) and that we actually know very, very little. And I told her that I’m okay with that. I used to know everything. Since then I’ve realized that the more I learn about the Gospel the more I realize how little I know.


  1. I think it’s a fear/concern that “I/we don’t know” means we’re just another denomination within the Christian tent.

    Rusty, I don’t think BKP would get on very well with a guy as candid as you.

    Comment by Steve EM — March 16, 2006 @ 4:46 pm

  2. I’m with you 100% on this one, Rusty.

    “It quickly became apparent that she had grown up with many false assumptions which she attributed to her parents, church leaders and other members.”

    I hope the missionaries didn’t contribute further while “correcting” her. In my experience, missionaries are one of the prime sources of this kind of stuff for new members.

    Comment by Ben S. — March 16, 2006 @ 4:58 pm

  3. Rusty,

    I don’t know.

    Comment by Ian Cook — March 16, 2006 @ 5:22 pm

  4. Because a church built on revelation should have all the answers.

    Comment by Kim Siever — March 16, 2006 @ 5:28 pm

  5. “Because a church built on revelation should have all the answers.”

    Really? Or just all the answers it has revelation for?

    Comment by Ben s. — March 16, 2006 @ 5:35 pm

  6. “Why can’t we more often admit it when we don’t know something?”

    Because for many of us, anytime a stupid idea pops into our heads that sounds even remotely plausible, we choose to believe that the idea must have come from the Holy Spirit, rather than from our own wacky selves.

    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — March 16, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

  7. Even though I agree with what has been said. Isn’t it true that we naturally try to seek answers to the hard questions? Once we find what we feel is an adequate answer then we go on to seek an answer to another question. Often the answers are wrong, but isn’t it a virtue to continue to try to find the answers to our questions instead of just saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t care to find out”? I think where we go wrong is we accept all the pad answers that are thrown at us and quit asking questions.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 16, 2006 @ 6:01 pm

  8. Another problem is the fuzziness of the line separating “anecdote/myth/fiction” and established truth. Early Church leaders taught of lot of stuff that has since fallen by the wayside or is no longer discussed. Some of these things are pretty fantastic (as in surprising). A lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between when a spiritual leader is sharing an opinion and when established truth is being taught. It’s one the major problems of an open canon.

    Comment by dai — March 16, 2006 @ 7:34 pm

  9. A few of my favorites: “dinosours came from matter un-organized” and rusty already mentioned, “because they were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence”. As a missionary in utah, I found that most of these “answers” were being taught by full-time seminary teachers.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 16, 2006 @ 9:16 pm

  10. I grew up with many stories of my mom telling me about how when she was growing up with all her little Catholic friends, the priests would often answer questions with the words, “it’s a mystery,” and wasn’t it wonderful that we, with the gospel didn’t have “mysteries” in our religion, only the clear truth of the gospel for which there were always answers. I think a lot of people probably feel / felt this way. It distinguishes us from the other churches (like Steve EM said) and it also confirms that we have the truth. And if there is something we don’t know, it’s coming just as soon as the Saints are ready to hear it (I do believe this actually).

    Comment by meems — March 16, 2006 @ 9:16 pm

  11. “And if there is something we don’t know, it’s coming just as soon as the Saints are ready to hear it (I do believe this actually).”

    What do you mean by “ready”? Do you mean prepared to hear? or do you mean willing to hear? or both?

    Comment by cj douglass — March 16, 2006 @ 9:44 pm

  12. Steve EM,
    You’re right and I think that falls under my #3. Ditto Kim.

    Ben S,
    No, actually the missionaries did a fantastic job.

    You may be on to something but you’re pulling the old bait-and-switch. I did suggest that we should more often admit that we don’t know but I never suggested that we shouldn’t keep searching for an answer. We should definitely keep asking questions but we can’t assume that we’ll get answers to all of them.

    You’re exactly right.

    Comment by Rusty — March 16, 2006 @ 10:10 pm

  13. How true this post is!!! We do have many more answers than other churches. We therefore think we should have all the answers. We don’t! And in spite of what some may think, I have said “I don’t know” is S.S. class…in fact several times!

    Comment by don — March 16, 2006 @ 10:11 pm

  14. I agree Rusty. And I think this happens as much in the Bloggernacle as in the church at large. Because we don’t like some of the speculation that gets passed on, we often create counter-speculation that fits in with the way we think things ought to be instead of simply saying, “We don’t know.”

    Comment by Eric Russell — March 16, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

  15. Rusty,
    If you think that we should continue looking for answers, then we shouldn’t critcize those who tried to give one. The answer now may seem to go against our contemporary instincts, but at one time it served its purpose.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 16, 2006 @ 11:59 pm

  16. Craig,
    Hm. When did “they were less valiant in the pre-existence” serve its purpose? And what was that purpose?

    I can understand what you’re saying, but I think there is a line between giving an answer as if it is a Gospel truth and giving an answer as a matter of your own opinion.

    Comment by Rusty — March 17, 2006 @ 12:04 am

  17. The only Gospel Truthes that we’ve all agreed on as doctrine are contained in the standard works. They are open of course, but we are not bound to accept anything as Doctrine other than the doctrines contained within them. So everything that is said that doesn’t make it into the canon can be considered opinion. Some opinions carry more of an authortative weight to them, but we are not obligated to accept any of them as doctrine.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — March 17, 2006 @ 12:33 am

  18. There is also the simple fact that many leaders in the church have said/published really weird stuff. The institutional response is to just not talk about it anymore. If there is no official response then, it is still true!

    It is quite rare to hear someone say, “well, there has been a diversity in perspective here.” In a doctrine match, who wins when they have all said different things? Joseph, Brigham, JFS, McConkie or Hinckley?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 17, 2006 @ 1:52 am

  19. cj douglass: What do you mean by “ready”? Do you mean prepared to hear? or do you mean willing to hear? or both?

    I meant prepared spiritually – but not individuals — the church as a whole. e.g., more scriptures will come forth, but they haven’t yet. I’ve heard (heh), that when we use and study the BoM as we should, then we’ll be ready for more information, but we now don’t use/live/study what we’ve got. Of course, this probably falls directly into the hearsay catagory and I’m totally proving Rusty’s point exactly!!

    Comment by meems — March 17, 2006 @ 9:08 am

  20. Rusty, thanks for your post.

    Comment by Chris Williams — March 17, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  21. Rusty, excellent post. I have found that the more education I receive and the more intellectual I become, the less I feel I know, and the more frequently I say “I don’t know.”

    I know some people of the stripe that always have the answers, and I’ve often found that they’re the ones who haven’t really worked things out, done the reading, done the grunt-work, etc. but rather jump at a hasty conclusion on something they didn’t bother to investigate fully. A lot of antis fall in this category too.

    Comment by David J — March 17, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

  22. “I agree Rusty. And I think this happens as much in the Bloggernacle as in the church at large.”

    I think Eric gave us all a very good reprieve here. Thanks Eric! Now for my opinion…

    I really like the discussion on this. I tend to say “I don’t know BUT MY OPINION IS…” I think this type of reply is valid in most situations, as long as people understand clearly that what you are saying is your own opinion.

    Also, there’s no problem speculating, as long as it is understood to be such and pound on everyone to find answers themselves. Acts 17:11 should be a banner scripture here:

    “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they recieved the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”

    Comment by Bret — March 17, 2006 @ 6:23 pm

  23. The “truth” that bothers me most, because I hear it all the time from missionaries, is that the period of the apostasy is synonymous with the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages, according to current thinking, spans the distance between the Fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne. A period of about 600 years. In the past, the Dark Ages was synonymous with the Middle Ages. Even then, the Apostasy was still out lasted the Middle Ages by over four centuries.

    I’ve also heard it preached that the Dark Ages are called “dark” because the light of the Gospel wasn’t on the earth. This is just stupid! “Dark Ages” is an historical term, not a theological term! They are called “dark” because there isn’t an extremely large amount of information available from that time period, what with all the barbarians destroying the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. I can only imagine what happens when missionaries of this sort get in to teach educated people, like history professors, and start spouting off such nonsense!

    It is embarrassing!

    Comment by john cline — March 18, 2006 @ 11:29 am

  24. John,

    If I had to pick a time to live in the ancient world, I’d pick a time when there were “dark times.” Why? Because in those times, you don’t have a big empire or kingdom taxing the crap out of its people, and if people DID come to take your stuff, you could probably wack a couple of them and not have to go to prison for it.

    Comment by David J — March 19, 2006 @ 5:17 pm

  25. “… we believe that the Lord will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

    Of course we don’t know everything!

    Comment by Sam — March 19, 2006 @ 10:12 pm

  26. I think you have to be ready to say “I don’t know” more often as a teacher/missionary than any other time, unless you actually think that having someone else depending on you, personally, as a source of All Truth and Knowledge, is a good thing. Anyone who has an answer for everything, worries me — no one is that smart, at least not amongst us mortal humans. Smacks of that unrighteous dominion stuff.

    Comment by Sarah — March 20, 2006 @ 12:38 am

  27. A semi-related question… If you do have questions that you are struggling with, who do you go to? (Besides God of course) Is that the responsibility of the ward missionaries?

    I went to my bishop last year but he didn’t have time to talk and hasn’t contacted me since or sent anyone to speak with me. I’ve gone about as far as I can on my own. Should I contact the ward missionaries myself or is there someone else I should be contacting for help? My hometeacher would be zero help…

    I’m almost ready to just throw in the towel at this point.

    Comment by Anon for this — March 20, 2006 @ 12:58 am

  28. Anon for this– Chances are, your bishop has completely forgotten about your questions. Don’t be embarrassed or offended if this is what happened — he’d probably be horrified to realize that a failure on his part has caused you anguish. I’d go see him again, and ask if he could recommend someone in the ward you could talk to about your questions, so if he doesn’t have time, he can at least help you on your way to finding answers. (If you felt so inclined, you could write him a letter asking for help with your questions, which would mean he’d be less likely to forget about it.) You could also ask anyone else in the ward that you trust — eq pres, rs pres, ward missionaries, ss teacher, or a ward member who is simply a friend. Unfortunately, it’s usually the highly visible crises that get the most attention in a ward, while private suffering can go virtually unnoticed. You don’t need to stir up a big fuss, but if no one knows (or remembers) that you are in need, no one will help you.

    Comment by Eliza Roxcy — March 20, 2006 @ 4:06 am

  29. Anon for this,
    I second what Eliza Roxcy said. Being in a bishopric I know that things slip through the cracks, especially when we don’t get reminders. Sadly more often than I’d like to admit the squeaky wheel actually does get the grease (or at least you can hear it a lot more). Eliza is right that the bishop would be horrified to find out that his failure caused you anguish. Please try again with him.

    Also, remember that this is your spirituality that you’re talking about, you don’t HAVE to go to your hometeachers if you don’t feel comfortable with them. Find someone you trust their perspective on the Gospel (even if it’s online) and see if they can help.

    Comment by Rusty — March 20, 2006 @ 5:36 pm

  30. I’ll add that too many Bishop’s attempt to answer questions for which they aren’t qualified or sweep things under the rug with a “go on your way and read the scriptures and pray”. It’s primarily an administrative calling and, because we members often abuse the Bishop and treat him like an employee rather than a volunteer, many Bishops get understandably overwhelmed. I’m shocked when I hear members complaining to the Bishop about the hymn book or hymn selections, or asking for advice in private matters, etc.

    The difficult questions need to be shepherded up the chain to the Stake President as they have access to GA’s who can provide definitive answers. And if the member perceives that the SP is winging it too, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask that a GA’s opinion be sought.

    Comment by Steve EM — March 20, 2006 @ 6:02 pm

  31. Interesting. I have heard/read that many Mormons are taught to not ask questions about their faith – instead it is suggested that they pray and the answer will make itself clear them. As a Jew, it is an interesting contrast for me, since I have grow up with the belief that questioning is good, that there is often no clear or straightforward answer, and that many times, one question will create many more.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 22, 2006 @ 12:41 am

  32. I’ll add that too many Bishop’s attempt to answer questions for which they aren’t qualified or sweep things under the rug with a “go on your way and read the scriptures and pray”.

    This is true, I think. I did a lot of things wrong when I was a bishop, but one thing I was always aware of was that I was young, sort on life experience and generally didn’t know squat. So I tried to be a resource to members in need–and often that meant that I did nothing more than listen or refer them to someone far more qualified than me to help them with their problems and issues. I learned that from our stake president, who I think was very good about listening and referring rather than trying to have answers for every situation that came along.

    Comment by Chris Williams — March 22, 2006 @ 10:42 am

  33. Chris, I think you were right on.

    I went to my bishop as a young single mother and confessed a sin and he said “go and sin no more.” And I thought that was very wonderful of him.

    I don’t think that sort of thing is rug sweeping, I think it’s wisdom. Rug sweeping would involve children and sex.

    Comment by anonymousfor this — March 22, 2006 @ 11:23 am

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