William James

William James
We must get by on what truth we have today, and be willing to call it error tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Can You Lose A Testimony?

The question was put:

"Last week someone used a really low and personal example to suggest that those of us who left never had testimonies in the first place. If we had received a testimony, the person suggested, we could never have left, never lost what we had, never denied the truth as this person saw it.

This runs completely counter to everything I've ever been taught in the church. People say they "know" the church and the gospel are true, but it seems more a statement of conviction backed up by spiritual confirmation, not a "sure knowledge" in the way that we know other things.

So, it is entirely possible to have had what one considers irrefutable spiritual confirmation and then come later to interpret that confirmation in a different, non-faith-confirming way. In essence, the experience is the same, but we interpret it differently. Thus, I cannot deny the "spiritual" experiences I had when I was a believing church member, but I understand them differently now.

The analogy the person gave was to being a witness or a victim of crime. Once those events happened, the victim would not deny that those things happened. In the same way, once you have a testimony of the gospel, you can't lose it or deny it.

This sounded really suspect to me, so I consulted the General Authorities. Here is a smattering of what I found in the Ensign:
If a testimony can be lost, it stands to reason that no person can stand here and belittle the testimony that anyone else has or had."

To which I responded:

At any given time, our current perception of reality will be limited not only by our experiences, but by our ability to interpret them, and by our memory. A "testimony" is a conviction backed up by at least perceived evidence. Many people who lose that conviction do so because they begin to realize the fallibility in how they acquired it. In general, in my opinion, the value of a conviction is only as great as the method employed to acquire it. I suppose that just about any empirical study on spiritual experiences, both in and outside of the church, would reveal that there is often little consistency between people. One thing you probably would find, though, is that as a general rule, it is much more likely for a person to "feel the spirit" confirm a pre-existing belief or socially-entrenched doctrine, rather than to cast aside what we have already come to accept. That is one reason why, in my opinion, children who grow up in the LDS faith have a much greater likelihood of having "spiritual witnesses" confirming the truth of the church than people who grew up outside the church. The same is probably true for just about all faiths, including evangelical Christianity.

When challenges arise which attack a person's pre-existing beliefs, people react in different ways. Some try their hardest to cast aside doubts, believing that even entertaining them constitutes a betrayal of their family's traditions. Others try their hardest to deal with the doubts, and accept that their beliefs may require modification in order to remain consistent with their perceived reality.

What particularly bothers me is the notion that any person who loses their "testimony" (conviction) of LDS doctrine has done so by virtue of some "fault" on their part, i.e., sin. While it is admittedly true that a person's shame from having committed genuine serious sin might drive them away from staying active in the church because they do not want to be confronted with the shame, I personally believe it is more often the case that people reject their prior convictions about LDS doctrines because their life experiences seem inconsistent with the doctrines they have been taught.

In the end, so long as we are acting diligently and in good faith in our search for the truth, with an eye towards sacrificing when reasonably called for, and doing good in the world, I do not believe God condemns us for the conclusions we reach, even if erroneous. I am much more critical of someone who does not give important matters much thought than I am of someone who thinks deeply but still disagrees with me.

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