I heard a woman (I’ll call her Sarah) recently bear testimony about her “smart and intellectual” sister who has been inactive for a while. They had a recent talk about her sister’s concerns and later that night Sarah couldn’t go to bed because she was wrestling with how to answer her sister’s questions. Finally she felt the Spirit testify to her that the church was true and God loved her and it wasn’t necessary that she be able to answer her sister’s questions, because those things of most importance were still true. Her fears eased, she slept like a baby.
I thought about something Neal Maxwell said once about feeling like Nephi when Nephi said that he didn’t know the meaning of all things, nevertheless he knew God loves his children. There’s clearly something right about that; we shouldn’t have to feel like not knowing certain things automatically calls into question foundational things we believe in or have felt. But people so often apply this outwardly and not inwardly. Not knowing something doesn’t condemn me but it does appear to condemn someone else. The few things I do know save me, but the many things someone else claims to know do not save them. That’s all backwards. Sarah’s ignorance with regard to her sister’s questions should be confirmation of God’s love for her sister (of God’s “love for his children”) not of God’s love for herself. She felt at ease when she felt the Spirit because she was more afraid of what her sister’s questions might mean for herself, not what they could mean for her sister. When the questions were revealed not to matter, it wasn’t significant that her sister was still in a state of apostate ignorance, it was much more important that Sarah was protected from having to take her sister’s humanity too seriously. Her sister was really just a tool which allowed Sarah to maintain her “buffered self” (to use Charles Taylor’s term), a self that’s isolated and insulated in a privately constructed world built of fragile facts and truths.
But the primary struggle for religious communities in the modern age isn’t about specific questions, answers, and doubts, it’s about what communities are willing to bear on behalf of their members. More specifically, it is the struggle over what counts as that which “must be borne and endured.” Worse than making questioning and doubting unendurable, we’ve chosen to make those who question and doubt unendurable. We’ve chosen to consider certain lives unbearable and unmournable. We think little of the potentially unlimited strength of the love which is possible in genuine togetherness. Instead we see danger and threat everywhere, and the walls we are continually reinforcing are apparently always too brittle to withstand the coming onslaught and must be built higher and stronger. We love our self-reflecting images of ourselves as faithful and upright more than we love other people, so much so that we’ll do violence to anyone or anything that is perceived as a threat to that image. That’s understandable when the destruction of that image is equivalent to destroying everything recognizable about ourselves. But if that’s true, it means that the only solution will be to stop loving the images we’ve made of ourselves and instead love our real selves in all our immensely flawed vulnerability and shortsightedness. Then maybe we can actually learn to love others in theirs.
Jacob, this was so on point I laughed after I finished reading it. What you said here gave voice to some feelings I have not been able to articulate (even to myself!) so it’s a relief to see someone else was able to – thank you.
Here is what Elder Maxwell said about 1 Nephi 11:17:
“There have been and will be times in each of our lives when such faith must be the bottom line: We don’t know what is happening to us or around us, but we know that God loves us, and knowing that, for the moment, is enough” (“Not My Will, But Thine” , 119).
Good advice. We all need, or will need, a bottom line like this at some point(s) in our lives. (And note the “for the moment.”)
But otherwise – I guess you need to be careful when you offer a testimony.
Sarah has a moment of comfort from the Spirit – in fact, that God loves her – and that moment is now to be extrapolated to reveal the state of her soul? Did Sarah say that as a result of this spiritual comfort she has written off her sister? Does Sarah feel that God doesn’t love her sister? Selfish, insulated Sarah: An inspirational moment actually demonstrates how inadequate and shallow she is. How does the author know that Sarah is “afraid of what her sister’s questions might mean for herself,” or that Sarah doesn’t “take her sister’s humanity too seriously”? How does he know that Sarah crouches in a “privately constructed world built of fragile facts and truths”?
Give her a break.
This is a great analysis and i wish everyone might take it to heart. Love is unlimited, though somehow that’s hard for us to accept, and still harder to live out. What “must be borne and endured” is the Other, in his or her Otherness. Can we live without protecting our righteousness, and without thinking of the Other as “unrighteous”?
But it strikes me that truth is important as well, and that’s where i wonder about Sarah’s “testimony” and the role it plays in keeping Sarah safe. I hope that someone here can help me out, because i really don’t understand what a “testimony” is. I’m not Mormon (i’m Eastern Orthodox), so this idea of a “testimony” doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s just not the way we ever talk. But I grew up in Salt Lake and am very interested in what’s going on among my friends, and i often hear about people’s “testimonies”. So i’m trying to understand what always strikes me as something like this:
If I have some questions or doubts— say, about the Book of Mormon, whether Joseph was a prophet, about the church, or some such— though strangely, the idea of a testimony never seems to pop up in discussions about the Bible, or Jesus— then I should pray until the Spirit comes to me— that is, until I get a “feeling” or a “burning in the bosom” (but does it come in other ways as well?)— and when i get that feeling, it will prove, or at least confirm, that this thing I’m concerned about is “true”— the Book of Mormon is “true”, or the church is “true”, or Joseph Smith “truly” was a prophet. And “true” doesn’t seem to mean (for example) a demonstration that the Mayans of Central America actually were the “Lamanites” in the Book of Mormon, but that this book about Nephites and Lamanites is something i can build my life on. Of course, those historical questions remain problematic in their own right, and plenty of debates take place about them, but fundamentally, i have a “testimony” that “this Book is true”, in such a way that i don’t really need answers to those factual questions, however material they may be.
Apparently you can “work on” and “develop” your testimony as well— although again i really hope someone can explain or at least describe their experience of this to me, for i’m very unclear about how this is done and how it works. But— at least from what i seem to hear— the testimony itself never seems to have any actual intellectual content.
For instance, in the case of Sarah’s sister’s questions, which i take it were more troubling to Sarah herself than she wanted to admit— the Spirit came and told her that certain other things were true and therefore she could rest assured and not worry about her questions. Those other things that were true apparently weren’t even related to the questions she had; “it wasn’t necessary that she be able to answer her sister’s questions, because those things of most importance were still true”. So her questions are themselves unresolved; the testimony only distracted her from them. But in other cases, people seem to speak of a feeling of confirmation about the thing in mind, itself. But even here, the testimony never actually seems to be an insight into the thing itself, into what makes it true, or into what its actual truth is; it’s just a conviction that something is “true”.
So the question never really seems to be answered in its own right, but only set aside by a feeling which i’ve been told is the voice of an (inner and yet none the less extrinsic) authority, the Spirit. This Spirit, or feeling, says, “This is true”, but it doesn’t actually show me how it’s true.
If my question is whether i can get such a feeling or testimony, then the feeling itself is the confirmation that i can. And if i’ve been told that such a feeling is the criterion of truth, then when i get such a feeling, i have confirmation of truth. But if my question is, What is the actual truth about such-and-such, then every feeling is completely irrelevant.
Do I misunderstand, and hence misrepresent, what a “testimony” is? Please help me out, because i want to understand. For if i do understand correctly, then doesn’t the authority or truth of the Book of Mormon, the prophet, or whatever rest not in its own intrinsic truth but only in an extrinsic voice (a Spirit, or a feeling) that says, “Accept this”? And then— can you have a testimony about something that’s factually not true? Not to take sides, but the question seems to be troubling enough that it inspires a whole industry of trying to prove that the Book of Mormon is not only “true” but factual, because otherwise the testimony itself would be false.
So i’m left asking, Are Sarah’s questions themselves not important, even if those other things are indeed true, seeing that the questions are central enough to be troubling to her very faith?
And then i wonder— what is the relationship between love and a testimony that something is “true”, if the latter actually functions as a wall that insulates me from my actual questions? Can i love the Other without actually embracing my own questions?
From The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis:
“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”
“Ye see it does not.”
“I feel in a way that it ought to.”
“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”
“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
“I don’t know what I want, Sir.”
“Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or
ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”
“But dare one say-it is horrible to say-that Pity must ever die?”
“Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of pity, the pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty-that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.”
“And what is the other kind-the action?”
“It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good.
But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.”
I expect Sarah continues to love and help her Sister despite or better yet because of the reassurance that God loves her.