Reflection on the wording of a scriptural passage.
Missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Really like sharing Moroni 10:3-5. You could even call it a theme of their message: they tell you things and instead of trying to convince you they are true (which rarely works in matter of faith) they ask you to ask God, whom they are confident will do the truth-identifying for them.
One part of that passage I wish to discuss in this post: “ask God […] if these things are not true.” Note the null hypothesis implied by this statement is truth. There may be English phrases where asking if something is not true expresses an assumption of falsehood, but I haven’t thought of it if there is. When I ask someone “is that true?” I am understood to be expressing uncertainty and that without the questioned’s reply would assume falsehood. Converse, “is that not true?” assumes the opposite: I assume it is true, and am asking if I am wrong. In some rhetoric it is used even more strongly, almost daring someone to find a way to weasel out of this obvious point. The null hypothesis of “is it not true” is truth, the thing that requires proof if falsehood.
But when I hear people talk about their conversion to the LDS faith I generally either hear no mention of asking at all (e.g., “as they were talking I just knew that it was true”) or a question described as lacking the “not” (e.g., “I asked God if it was true and He told me it was”). The null hypothesis is generally expressed as being falsehood. Often quite strongly so; many are the people who come in despite initial confidence in the falseness of the faith because they have been convinced of its truth by God.
Was Moroni suggesting a lighter standard of belief than I see used? That does align with Alma’s wording: “What evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.” It is also more commonly the kind of reasoning I see used among people who have believed in the past: “I knew it then and I have not had reason enough to stop believing.” But there are so many putative truths out there, how could one possibly apply this believe-until-proven-false standard to all of them? And if not all, then which?
Perhaps Moroni uses the default-to-true language subconsciously because he himself knew it to be true. But given the decades he had to write a few pages of material, I suspect he thought carefully about every word. Though I also suppose the difference between “is it true” and “is it not true” are only in English, not in the original language of the text, and were added either by inspiration or acceptable default during translation.
But I generally side with a third possible explanation. Moroni understood that people who were likely to accept his invitation and actually ask with sincerity were people who already had the beginnings of belief growing inside them. I have never seriously entertained attempting to contact Zeus to see if ancient Greek gods are real; I have no inkling of faith, and thus am almost guaranteed not to enquire. The people who will pray about the truth of the teachings of prophets are people who already have some reason to expect belief; consciously or not, they are already starting to entertain the hypothesis that this could be true. Given that they have some evidence for, the question now becomes is there any evidence against?
I generally side with that last explanation, but not always. The process by which God answers prayer is one that, while I have experienced it often enough in enough diverse settings that I am confident it works from both a faith-based and experience-based perspective, I do not really understand. My pondering of this phrase is just one way that that lack of clarity is manifest.