I’ve had some discussions with a few good friends recently about testimony and belief. As a result, tonight I felt the need to set down, for my own good (and perhaps others’) my own testimony. My testimony ebbs and flows, and I suppose that at present, it’s a bit unorthodox. But I don’t know that there’s any one right way to believe.
My testimony has developed to where it is now through a series of back-and-forths, through build-ups and tear-downs and build-ups again. It’s very different now than it was five or ten years ago; I don’t expect that it is done changing. The only way to really explain where I’m at now — at least the only way that makes any sense to me — is through a somewhat lengthy trip through how it has all developed. (And don’t say you weren’t forewarned on the length, reader!)
I lived on borrowed light for a long time. I was Mormon because that’s what I was. No different from a thousand other LDS kids, growing up in the world.
My first crisis of faith came in high school. As I recently noted on a BCC thread, for a time I resented the church and thought “If only I werenâ€™t a weird Mormon, if only I were one of the party animals who was drinking and sleeping around, then I wouldnâ€™t be such a geek.” In retrospect, it was a usual case of overwrought teenage angst, but at the time it was the most important thing in the world to me. And at the height of my crisis, God answered my heartfelt, unworthy prayer. I received a clear-as-day message. And that was that.
So I became a sort of Mr. Mormon. I hung out with Mormon kids; I read scriptures regularly; I put pictures of the temple on my bedroom walls. (Yes, I was that much of a geek). And I went on a mission.
At the MTC, I stressed about my testimony. I prayed about Moroni’s promise, of course. I don’t recall any burning in the bosom; I felt sort of good about the whole endeavor, but vaguely worried that I hadn’t gotten something more definitive. And then my belief got a patch of sorts — I specifically recall a talk where a general authority said “if the church wasn’t true, then why would Joseph have done so much and sacrificed so much to restore it?” And that resonated with me at the time. It just sounded right.
My mission was my second crisis of faith. It was the kind of mission about which no one will ever make a Mollywood movie. I saw infighting, backstabbing, and much worse. I picked up more bad habits on my mission than I had in two years prior. At the same time, I had some incredible, truly remarkable spiritual experiences. The juxtaposition was jarring, to say the least.
I came home adrift. My pre-mission excitement about the gospel was gone. I was still assimilating my mission experiences (ten years later, I still don’t know if I’ve completely dealt with them). But I was plugged into Mormon social circles. And so I dated some pretty Mormon girls; soon, I married and started a family.
Among other things, my mission had made one very evident change in me — it had turned me from a classic slacker into a workaholic. And so I settled into a crazy work/school regime of full time work plus full time school. My testimony was on hold, so to speak. I had a low-impact church calling (primary pianist, the best job in the world), and I was concentrating on getting through school in one piece. If I missed a week of church, I didn’t sweat it. If I missed a few weeks in a row, or a month, then Mardell would bug me and drag me to church for a week.
Meanwhile, my family was providing my most powerful spiritual experiences. Holding my newborn son in my arms was the greatest moment of my life. The church linked to these moments — I loved blessing my children — and I was happy for that link, though I didn’t give a lot of thought to the underlying testimony structure.
I arrived at law school largely in the same shape — a Mormon by habit. I hung out with Mormon kids; I went to Sacrament meeting because that’s what I was supposed to do. At that point, I don’t know that it’s even really accurate to say that I had a testimony at all. One experience that I remember in particular came on a plane flight. I sat next to a Jewish woman, and we discussed religion. She asked why I was Mormon. And my answer was along the lines of “well, I was born Mormon and I haven’t really found anything better to be.” It was a terrible cop-out, and she called me on it. She was shocked that I was willing to be a cultural Mormon (she said she could understand cultural Jews, but not cultural Mormons).
An underlying problem was that I believed my mind had outrun my mental engagement with church issues. I had moved from high school to college and then to law school. Church bored me to tears; I was thrilled to be in nursery, playing with the kids, rather than in Sunday School. (This may have made some sense in Arizona, but it was a really dumb attitude in Manhattan, given that Sunday School included the Bushmans, Jim Lucas, Greg Call, and so forth. Nevertheless, it was my view at the time — you couldn’t catch me dead in Sunday School). And given that attitude, it’s not at all surprising that I ditched church regularly to deal with law school issues, or sometimes just to stay home and relax.
Somewhere, gradually, a shift began. I started self-identifying more as Mormon. I started having long talks with friends and colleagues about religion. Not preachy talks, but fun, let’s-discuss-all-the-issues talks. And I felt a sense of pride in standing up for Mormon ideas. Perhaps I wasn’t sure if the church was true, but I sure wasn’t going to let anyone wrongly criticize it. It was my church, after all.
We moved to the Bronx, and from being nobodies in the ward to being ward backbones. Within two weeks, I was in the Elders’ Quorum presidency, trying to rebuild a home teaching program from the ground up. (Ironic, since I hadn’t done my own home teaching for years, despite Greg’s diligent calls). It was a shock, and I found myself wanting to make the ward better, wanting to answer peoples’ concerns. And the ward certainly needed it. We fed the missionaries every week for over a year; I ran meetings; I felt needed. It was exhausting; it was dysfunctional; it was great.
Did I have a testimony? I’m not sure. I could rattle off “I-know-this-church-is-true” like anyone else. Did I believe it?
Around this time, I started blogging. One thing led to another, and soon I was blogging about the church. (Mardell joked that I was “getting in touch with my Mormon side.”) Somewhere between the blogging and the meeting-running, I decided that I had to figure out whether I believed, and what I believed. My prior testimony was pretty much in shambles; I no longer found many of the arguments and statements convincing. But I had had some remarkable experiences, and these I couldn’t just explain away easily. How could I connect the dots in a way that made sense?
It was a question that I pondered, on and off, over a series of months. Here’s what I came up with.
First, I absolutely know that there is something greater than human knowledge and human experience. I have had too many strong experiences to believe otherwise. There is something Divine out there: omens, connections, karma, whatever you wish to call it; or perhaps, God. If I weren’t Mormon or otherwise linked to organized religion, I would almost certainly be a New Ager or mystic believer of some sort. I am absolutely certain that there is more out there than we can physically sense — both good and bad. And this presence or force notices us enough to sometimes intervene in our lives. That is, there is some Divine.
Second, I know that the church — the rituals and beliefs we follow; our scriptures and doctrine; the whole package — is one way to connect to that Divine. I don’t believe that it’s the only way to so connect; I don’t even know that it’s the best way. But at certain points when I’ve personally made the connection to the Divine, it has been through the trappings of the church. And that’s good enough for me.
Those two ideas form the core of my testimony.
The rest shifts, depending on the day. At times, sometimes for months on end, the whole church tapestry seems to make perfect sense to me and fit together so well. At other times, I find myself weighed down by little inconsistencies and obssessing over issues and concerns — polygamy, historicity, inconsistency here and there. I find that some church doctrines resonate particularly well with me, like the idea that families can be together forever. My family is one of my strongest connections to the Divine, and I like this. Other church doctrines sometimes seem to contradict my own experiences and connections with the Divine, and I struggle more trying to put those pieces together. But ultimately, my core is enough.
Once I set out my basics, I found that I really didn’t need to fully or permanently resolve the rest. It would be nice to have a unified set of beliefs that made perfect sense. On the other hand, I tend to think that belief is overrated; or rather, that action is the best type of belief. I absolutely love Unamuno’s story “Saint Manuel the Good,” because it focuses on the idea that one can believe in God without believing in one’s own belief. In a similar way, I think it’s okay to realize that my religion is my conduit to the divine, and that it works as such for me — even if I don’t always understand or believe all of the creed.
And that, dear reader, is what I call my testimony. It has changed quite a bit over time, and I don’t at all think that it’s done changing. It probably looks different from your testimony, but that’s okay. I don’t think that there’s one right way to believe, but I do think it is important to believe. Our belief is what connects us to the Divine. My own haphazard, slightly unorthodox belief structure seems to work for me. If your approach is different, I won’t begrudge you the difference.