Sunday, April 11, 2010

My Mormon Testimony (Or Something Like Unto It)

A month ago Hugo Schwyzer, a blogger I've read pretty regularly for years, wrote a post on why he is a Christian. It was what we Mormons refer to as a "testimony"--a testifying of what he believes (namely, in the salvific power of Jesus Christ), and why. Testimonies have become, over the decades, both essential and routine in the Mormon faith. We speak regularly of having, or seeking, or sharing with others, our conviction--our personal revelation, if you will--of the "truth" of Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon or what have you; in our popular rhetoric (if not always in our specific doctrines) the possession of such a testimony is generally held to be a crucial distinguishing mark which separates Mormons from other Christians (after all, anyone can read the Book of Mormon and perhaps find it interesting or gain some message of hope from it, but how many accept it fully for what it purports to be?). For those within the faith--as well, obviously, for many outside it as well--being able to testify of something strikes a powerful, even necessary, spiritual chord.

I liked Hugo's post very much, in part because of the approach he took. Every testimony will, of course, be different, but I was particularly struck by the fact that Hugo felt it important to talk about how much he didn't know; how much, that is, he believes without really understanding what it is he believes:

I’ve never been concerned with proving God exists. God for me is something I experience in a way that isn’t particularly rational--it’s sub-rational, or extra-rational. It’s more emotional and sensory than it is logical. I believe the stories about Jesus--including the bits about his conception and his resurrection--despite my wariness of the miraculous. I believe the stories because they spoke to me as no other stories have. What seems absurd on an intellectual level makes good sense far deeper in my core.

That's a testimony, an expression of belief, right there. But when you're a Mormon, and you're brought up to accept the possibility of receiving personal revelation--of having a truth revealed to you, removing all doubt--is belief enough? Some would say yes; others no--they would argue that belief is good, but conviction is better.

A group of Mormon scholars a while ago put together a website, collecting the testimonies of various academics and others involved in intellectual pursuits, asking them to express--to borrow the parlance of Hugo's post--why they are Mormons. They asked me to write up something, and I was happy to do so...though I fear it reveals me as mostly a boring self-interlocutor, always trying to understand why I believe in, and feel attached to, something, even though I doubt I have have a firm, revelatory conviction of the truth of that which I nonetheless believe in and am attached to. Anyway, this is what I wrote (it's also posted here). It will be long and self-indulgent for many of you, and will make reference to Mormon practices (missions, patriarchal blessings, etc.) that you probably won't understand. But who knows? Perhaps, as with Hugo's post, something in it will resonate within you. And besides, you've already read this far, so how bad can it be?


I have wondered if I have a testimony for as long, I think, as I have been aware of how my fellow Saints around me use the word. I am, for better or worse, an intellectual–and moreover, a doubting and debating one. Statements of all sorts regularly strike me as dubious, and demand further explanation. The statements I’d heard in sacrament meeting talks and testimonies since I was a little child–“I know the church is true” and the like–were no exception; what is it, I wondered, which entails such knowledge, and how do you know if you have it? So I kept my ears open; I asked questions; I studied. The answers, of course, varied greatly; parents and teachers and seminary manuals and Deseret Books publications and general conference talks would speak of a burning in the bosom (Luke 24:32), a peace of mind (Mosiah 4:3), a conviction of truth (John 15:26), a spiritual whispering (1 Kings 19:12), etc. But whatever the terminology, there was almost always--or at least so it seems to me today, as I reconstruct events and arguments (both internal and with others) from over the decades--some reference to or assumption of revelation or intuitive realization: some moment or process of insight, whether pure nous or directly from God. Once we “give place” in our hearts to the possibility that the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith, or the history of the Book of Mormon, or the scripture stories about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, may in fact be real and true, there will come a time (assuming we are striving earnestly and righteously, two huge caveats all their own) when this seed will “begin to swell” within us, to “enlighten [our] understanding” about that which we initially merely “desire” to know the truth of (Alma 32:27-28). Whatever it is, then, I came to accept that a testimony is a gift, something recognized or received or planted within us, a confirmation or a connection that comes to a person, granting them something that wasn’t there before.

At some point, as I continued to grow and study and debate and doubt, I also realized that the language of testimony needn’t be so tied to propositional knowledge: the presumably objective facts of Smith’s spiritual authority, the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, the Atonement’s reality. It could be tied to the simple feelings of fellowship which come along with being a practicing member of the community. Eventually, there came a time when it wouldn’t have surprised me if that (a reliance upon community feeling rather than revealed truth) turned out to be the case for a great majority of my fellow Mormons--indeed, I am still of such a mind. But years ago that realization didn’t much change my thinking, since whatever I thought of the matter, as a committed member of the church I could not easily discount what other members of the community apparently meant when they used the word “testimony.” And their use of that word troubled me. Because through my youth and missionary work, through my young adulthood and marriage, through becoming a father and a scholar, it seemed to me almost certain that I didn’t have one.

Almost certain, I should emphasize, for it has also always seemed to me (or at least, it had always seemed so by the time I had figured out a language and had developed enough of a self-awareness to be able to even ask myself this question) quite possible that I had received or recognized something, but had talked myself out of it. I seemed to be good at that, endlessly talking to myself, and that troubled me even more. For in fact I had had experiences--very rare and idiosyncratic experiences, to be sure, but experiences nonetheless (a lost wedding ring which was found following a heartfelt prayer is one that sticks in my mind)--that made me wonder if I hadn’t heard something, felt something, had something confirmed to me....but then the doubts would return, doubts attached to the same sins I’d struggled with for years, doubts that would loom up in my thinking as a confirmation of themselves--for if I really had recognized within myself or received from God a testimony, wouldn’t I know it? Thus, with frustration and confusion and not a little bitterness, I came to suspect that the gift of a testimony just wasn’t, for whatever reason, going to be mine.

So what changed, in the end? Perhaps nothing changed--I still am unclear as to whether, through all my church service and prayers and scripture study and occasional and careful speaking on fast Sundays, I have ever experienced or felt or heard something that would let me know, for a surety, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, or of the Book of Mormon’s historicity, or the actuality of Christ’s Atonement. And, of course, as I mentioned above, a tend to suspect that often other feelings lay behind the words which we Mormons use to speak to each other about such things. But probably more importantly, I have also learned to attend to and appreciate other gifts I have....and perhaps that appreciation does constitute a change, after all.

For you see, I actually do know--with a knowledge which I have learned to identify as discursive and hermeneutic, something known not through revelation or insight, but through dialogue, experience, reflection, and interpretation--that I have one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing describes it as a gift of wisdom (D&C 46:17), but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier in the revelation: while to some it is given to know “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world,” it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge (vs. 13-14), even if it is not something I may ever be blessed with myself.

My conclusion, in other words, is that I have the gift of believing--which is not the same as knowing, but a gift which I have come to feel more and more grateful to be in possession of all the same. While I am uncertain and doubtful as to any direct influence the divine has had in my own life (and, indeed, am often highly--though I hope also tactfully!--critical of the details of many accounts of such influence which populate our culture), I do not fundamentally doubt the possible truth of any of them. I am open to the supernatural; the idea that an omniscient God may take interest in the life of an ordinary individual such as myself seems perfectly plausible. I have tried the atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe something, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I sensed was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. When I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found truth through the priesthood ordinances elaborated by Joseph Smith, or a relationship with God through the words of the Book of Mormon, or healing through seeking the Atonement through prayer, fasting, and compassionate service in the church, I can see no reason to dispute them. I believe them: I believe the words of my father, my wife, and so many teachers and neighbors and friends I have been blessed with. While I don’t think I have within me any great conviction that they are all right, it doesn’t strike me as at all possible that they are all wrong. The way I even frame such questions arise from the community I am part of, and while embracing a community does not mean agreeing with every single part of it, it does mean acknowledging that one’s identity is not wholly separable from the beliefs which it conveys.

Such belief probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and perhaps it is to a degree. How do I distinguish the value I attach to the beliefs which arise from my own affective relationships to parents and teachers and friends and spouse from those which may arise for someone else whose loving environment differed from mine–a Catholic environment, a Buddhist one, a secular one? In truth, I do not. This is not to say I do not assess the beliefs I encounter in light of my own, and vice-versa; as Charles Taylor has argued, it is a central feature of all moral reasoning to subject our moral and spiritual intuitions to a “strong evaluation,” to comparative “discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower” (Sources of the Self [1992], pg. 4). I do engage in such judgments, all the time, and the resulting evaluations and distinctions make me, I hope, a better–perhaps even a truer–believer, more capable of expressing, and defending, the grounds and implications of that which seem eminently believable about those convictions others have testified to me of. But I cannot pretend that such evaluations amount to the ability to confidently assert a radical epistemological distinction on the part of my own beliefs over and above all others. Ultimately, the most I can say is that non-Mormon beliefs are not my own, and so I debate with and doubt them (though sometimes, upon consideration, I find sympathy with them as well) from the point of view of a tradition I am affectively–and happily–attached to.

That my beliefs are tied up with identity and attachment does not, I think, reduce their value or force. A willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over one’s received beliefs is not the same as relativism. Socrates himself was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all his constant talking, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he “knew nothing”). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or to borrow from the German romantic tradition, of verstehen. When describing King Solomon’s wisdom, the Old Testament record curiously speaks of not only his knowledge, but of his “largeness of heart” (1 Kings 4:29)--which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others’ claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said.

The fact that I can get all philosophical about what I suspect to be my most fundamental spiritual condition shouldn’t be taken to mean that I consider it to be an excellent one, as I don’t. Frankly, I’d much rather have conviction. I’d like to be able to speak--as so many I love and have learned from have themselves spoken--with certainty about this thing that I felt, these words which I heard, this miracle which I witnessed, this truth revealed to them. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism so often ends up becoming self-criticism. (“You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?”) So I still pray for confirmation and revelation....though admittedly far less often than I used to, as my contemplation of the implications of my gift for believing, a believing which goes hand in hand with debating and doubting, have brought more contentment into my life as the years have gone by. As I reflect upon those I’ve known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and think about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am gifted with a naive belief in the Restoration, and the gospel of Christ.

In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to express all this. Paul Ricoeur described it as a “second naivete,” one which calls us across the “desert of criticism” and makes possible a certain kind of belief in or intuition of the reality of the sacred (The Symbolism of Evil [1967], pg. 349). To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics–which, it is worth noting, was originally a theological (indeed a pneumatological) endeavor, concerned with the role of spirit, or spirits, in the text or symbol or world. While I realize that it is dangerous to wish for things--as you may get what you desire--I still wish that I could be one of those who see and feel, with great immediacy, such spirits. But in any case, I’m glad that I believe they’re there.

1 comment:

Hugo Schwyzer said...

Really wonderful, and I blogcrush this line: In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily.