So I read through Terry Eagleton's Trouble With Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). It wasn't quite what I'd hoped, as he doesn't directly engage with either classical or recent ethical theories; rather, he pursues what one might call a literary approach to a philosophical topic. That worked for his earlier short treatments, such as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Here, he shoehorned the entire book into Jacques Lacan's imaginary-symbolic-real paradigm and used Lacan's mirror image metaphor as a touchstone throughout the book. Some readers might find that an insightful approach to ethical issue and questions, but not me. I did enjoy the discussion of Alain Badiou and his idea of "truth events."
Anyway, there was one passage in the book that, almost in passing, raises the interesting question of religious certainty. To illustrate what I referred to in the previous paragraph, it's in a section discussing Emmanuel Levinas, in a paragraph that starts out talking about how European post-structuralist and postmodernist ethical thinking has given up on the ideas of community and social solidarity as irredeemably tainted by Stalinism and the Nazis. Then this, at page 235 (bold text added):
Belief can indeed be perilous, as an era awash with various crazed fundamentalists scarcely needs reminding. We need a degree of certainty in order to thrive, but too much of the stuff can prove fatal. A cautious liberal pragmatism, coupled with a salutary scepticism of grand narratives, may thus appear the order of the day. But though such pragmatism can valuably contest dogmatic irrationalism, it is powerless to transform the conditions which gave birth to it. Besides, if the twenty-first-century conflict between capitalism and the Qur'an (or a tendentious reading of that text) does not constitute a grand narrative, it is hard to know what does.
While Eagleton displays considerable sympathy for the theological and ethical side of mainstream Christianity in his books, he is generally rather critical of conservative Christianity, in particular American conservative Christianity. I think both Islamic fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism defined broadly (which, ironically, includes Mormonism) are the intended references for his phrases "crazed fundamentalists" and "dogmatic irrationalism." Plainly, he is sympathetic to "cautious liberal pragmatism," but rather than simply recommending it as the proper cure or at least counterweight to those crazed fundamentalists, he admits that liberal pragmatism isn't quite up to the job: it is unable or unwilling to announce or adopt a contemporary grand narrative that would make the liberal program relevant and it is consequently powerless to change society. Compared to those crazed fundamentalists and Evangelicals, it lacks a sense of certainty to propel its projects forward, if it can even articulate projects worth forwarding.
So there seems to be an optimal degree of religious certainty that lies somewhere between the always equivocal pragmatists and the always certain fundamentalists/Evangelicals. This seems like an idea worth discussing in the LDS context, where faith is defined as knowledge rather than conviction or commitment and any attempt to define faith as something other than sure knowledge is seen as an expression of doubt or, worse, as a sneaky apostate endorsement of simple disbelief. I wish there were examples of more sophisticated discussions of faith within mainstream LDS discourse. You'd think Elder Maxwell would have given a talk on this theme. I'd wager that Eugene England wrote an essay or two on the topic, but he doesn't get quoted in Sunday School manuals or CES study guides.
The bottom line: I am convinced that the optimal degree of religious certainty is less than an unwavering insistence on expressing every faith statement in the form, "I know that ...". On the other hand, is there a stable alternative formulation for such a view of faith that doesn't invariably slide down to the safely noncommittal professions of "cautious liberal pragmatism"?
What is the optimal degree of religious certainty and how do we get there?
Note: Feel free to post links to LDS discussions of faith that propose something along these lines, whether in blog posts, journals, or Conference talks.