William James

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thoughts On What A Testimony Is

The comment was made (June 2008):

"Another poster started a thread about ex-Mormons being faithful before leaving the church. John W. stated that his leaving was not purposeful, that he really wanted to stay and believe and that was pretty much the same story with the personal friends he had that also had stopped believing in the church.
I do not doubt his story or what he has recounted from those of his friends. That is not my purpose to criticize, judge, or categorize them. But I do have some questions about levels of belief and testimony. I have had some spiritual experiences that have locked my testimony in to the point that I can say I know Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God.
I have left the church a couple of times, but that testimony would not leave me alone and I had to return.
I brothers and sisters some of whom have remained in the church, and some who have ceased to believe. We each have went through trials of our faith. Some lost their faith, and some came back stronger than ever.
To me a testimony is something that transcends belief, even strong belief. It is difficult for me to understand how one could really have a testimony and slide from there into unbelief. I can understand how one can believe but not have a testimony and slide into unbelief.
I would like to hear from both sides of the fence. Are there among those who have left the church because of unbelief people who had had a testimony of the gospel, have had a witness from the Holy Ghost that it is true and still fallen away? If so, what triggered it? The start of unbelief? I would really like to understand.
I would ask those who still believe not to make any negative comments about or to those who decide to share their stories with us. I just would really like to understand."

To which I responded:

Thank you for your honest questions. These issues are a sticking point for many people in and out of the LDS church. People (including church leaders) do not all agree on what a testimony actually is. There is a sliding scale of conviction, ranging from mere hope to feeling absolutely convinced that something is true. One thing I have come to realize is how much our life circumstances, including our social network, has an influence on what we tend to believe. That is not to say that we are mere robots who cannot think for ourselves and who just accept everything we are taught or everything that our close friends and family want us to believe. But those things do have a very strong influence. In fact, they not only influence how comfortable we feel with accepting or rejecting certain doctrines, but they also have a tendancy to color our perception when we observe the world and try to categorize our life experiences as either supporting or undermining certain beliefs.

To take as an example, if a TBM were to look at people flocking to the teachings of one of the protestant megachurches, he might think to himself that this demonstrates what a hold Satan has on people in deceiving them from the truth of the restored gospel, which in turn supports the view that Satan is striving to lead the people away from God's true church, which in turn leads the TBM to take all necessary steps not to be led astray, which in turn leads the TBM to read and study the BoM daily and to remain active in church so as not to fall away. By contrast, a member of the same mega-church might look at the same circumstances and view the mega-church's ever-growing membership as validation that his beliefs are correct and that God is blessing his church because it is on the right path. The subtle process by which our subconscious thoughts interpret and categorize our life's experiences are strongly influenced by our existing backgrounds and prejudices. It may not ever be possible to completely rid ourselves of the prejudices and to judge on a totally clean slate.

Anyway, the above is one reason why different people can develop extremely powerful, yet irreconcilably opposing convictions. Those convictions are usually based upon assumptions that we are correctly perceiving and interpreting our life experiences. Often, however, the assumptions upon which we subconsciously relied in forming those convictions will suddenly come under scrutiny. Some people will re-examine the assumptions upon which they based their convictions. When the assumptions turn out to be certainly or most likely false, people are brought to re-evaluate how they came to their conclusions.

I'm sure many adults once had a conviction as kids that Santa was a real person. I did. And believing brought me peace and hope. But when I got a little older, I was compelled to see the writing on the wall, so to speak. So I had to start asking myself, why was I sure that Santa was real, when in fact he was not? For that matter, how can I know that the spiritual feelings I have on particular doctrines are true witnesses? The bottom line is, I cannot know, and I will have to decide whether the evidence known to me points more in one direction than the other. I have to be open to new evidence always, but I must also decide on preliminary conclusions to get me through the present. So, I have convictions, but I am always open to evidence that shows my convictions are in error.

Hope that helps. I feel that if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will discovery how little we actually know and how much of our convictions are based upon assumptions.

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