Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Testimony and the Trial of Faith

A few days ago I was moved to reflection on my testimony in a post by Beck, "Can ye feel so now?" wherein he stated,

But "good" and "righteous" and "right" don't feel as "good" and "righteous" and "right" as they once did. Such words have lost their power and meaning. Why? What has changed?...Why can't my world be black-and-white clear and exact again as it once was? Will I ever have the unquestioning faith that I once had?
Or I might add, where is that straight rod of iron which leads to the Tree of Life? And if I find it, will I hold onto it?

Why should we care? Because a key tenet of our faith is latching onto truth, God's Truth, not man's truth. I wouldn't want to believe in something that maybe is true, or go through a bunch of denial only to find out it really didn't matter.

Relative truth, or the "Spirit of the Law" is so much more difficult to define and comprehend than the standard answers we hear in Primary, Sunday School and most Sacrament Meeting talks. Maybe I will regain surety of knowledge when I'm kneeling at the feet of Jesus, washing the dust off with my tears. But for this life, I have chosen to step off into the vast unknown space of hope, realizing that sure knowledge comes by trial and faith, and if I'm persistent, by revelation. I do this because the perfect mold of Black & White Mormonism doesn't really fit for me. The generic faith answers don't square with the scope of my experience. And yet I know God lives, I have felt His love, and the Spirit has confirmed the validity of the Gospel in my life.

One of my poems I published early on in my blog, Prairie Wind, speaks to the struggle we have in finding and keeping the Spirit alive in our daily walk, because we shut ourselves in and don't embrace the Spirit. I labored over this poem for a couple dark years, and couldn't get it finished until I moved out of the frozen prairies of Minnesota into the light and warmth of the Arizona sun! (No offence, JG-W!) My point is, we don't usually get our answers at the first asking, and we sometimes have to move on to new perspectives to realize truth and understanding in our mortal rear-view mirror.

The fact is, we change. We experience new vistas, new sin, new doubts, and new truth as we traverse through life. I chose to answer the angst in my poem with a veiled reference to the Savior's admonition to become as little children in seeking the Kingdom of God. But even this is not an easy answer to the doubts and fears that plague us, it is simply a guide. In our quest for conviction Beck asks the thorny question of whether our religious experience at church will ever again feel "right." I don't know. What matters to me is that I must feel right with God.

Case in point: of all the things that constitute party-line rhetoric in Mormon testimony meetings that I find somewhat discomforting, it is the phrase "the only TRUE church." I have great faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ because I have felt repeatedly the gift of forgiveness; I know the Priesthood is real because I have felt and been an instrument of its power; I know we have a prophet who speaks for God because I have felt the Holy Ghost testify to me that this is so. But don't ask me to smugly recite the 'only true and living' phrase because it doesn't fit my personal experience and observation. I have too great a love and respect for people of faith practicing other world religions, and know of God's love for them, to say something that implies for me that God doesn't direct and reveal Himself to them as well. I realize our church teaches people of other faiths can be inspired, but adhering to 'the only true and living church' for me runs the risk of being condescending and doesn't match my personal faith in God's universe, therefore I don't say or believe such things. I cannot imagine God's celestial garden being only red roses, not that they aren't "true," but that the diversity and beauty of His real garden of life is simply so much more wonderful and compelling.

So how does my kind of testimony stack up? Well, I might be accused of 'relativistic morality' or 'buffet line faith.' This assessment certainly hits the fan of rigid dogma as it relates to gay lifestyles, feminism or you name it. I know we can find ourselves outside mainstream Mormonism when we start developing special cases for our situation, especially if our belief system runs counter-current to recorded teachings by apostles or prophets. However, I think a relative faith, taylored by personal revelation can cope. I realize this kind of faith causes some concern to our 'straight' brothers and sisters for our eternal salvation, but this is our problem, not theirs.

How do you think God will judge the peoples of the world's diverse belief systems? I don't think it will be by Mormon theology. I believe He will judge and reward people according to their faith and love, the desire and intent of each individual heart, and as demonstrated by personal observance, just like us.

If I think God will show latitude in judging the diverse peoples of dispensations and cultures, shouldn't I think he would do the same for me, even under the mantle of Mormonhood? If I am willing to venture in my faith where others of the church are cautious, my only constraint is this: I should deeply believe that I am "right" in light of the Holy Ghost guiding my belief, and then I must live my belief with integrity, because that will be the measure by which I will be judged. Otherwise, my self-fashioned religion is only a convenient farce.


-L- said...

I've struggled with how condescending it is to hold the view that our church is true and no other is, but the thing that makes it really hard is that it's not just those silly ward members up there saying it in sacrament meeting, it was Jesus Christ who said it to Joseph as recorded in the D&C. It's harder to be ashamed to say it when I think of it that way. I find other ways to be diplomatic in expressing it, but I still believe that it's true.

GeckoMan said...

You make an excellent point that Jesus Christ made an exclusive declaration to JS concerning his church, and this is a legitimate origin to LDS doctrine. However, I think it is also fair to say that there are elements of our Mormon culture stemming from 19th century ideals, such as attitudes regarding roles of men and women, which may be incompatible with Celestial culture.

I believe all religions and philosophies have elements of God's truth in them, because I believe He inspires men and women to noble and moral virtues. And since the Church doesn't claim to have all truth (many things are yet to be revealed), we shouldn't be too quick to deny the truth or origin of other people's faith.

Beck said...

You've given me much to contemplate. I used to think it was simple. It's not so simple anymore. Yet, General Conference talks are simple. Gospel principles are simple. Truth is simple.

So why do I sometimes make it seem so complicated?

GeckoMan said...

Beck, I do think faith in and living the Gospel can be simple, if we choose to simplify our lives. I've often thought, what is it about going on vacation that I enjoy most? When I go to a small cabin in the woods, or a tent by the stream, or the Oregon beach, what I love is freedom from all the "stuff" that we surround ourselves with in our daily lives, and this allows me to focus on family and being together. So can we endeavor to shed complexity and 'become as little children' and strive to be more open, love more freely, dispose of excess materialism and follow Christ in building up the kingdom?

However,I think you were referring more to the simple B&W version of the church and observance, and that we build complexity into our faith by getting beyond simple principles and by seeking exceptions. I think for those of us who tend to question generic answers and some standard practices in the church (because they don't fit our experience), simple acceptance of the black and white may not be possible. Answers to individual needs, sought by prayer and received by personal revelation, are more simple to live by than struggling against cultural paradigms that don't work for us.

My whole point in this post is that if we question and find different answers, let us be sure they are inspired by what the Lord wants for us, and then let's not continue to question, but live peacibly by them.

J G-W said...

My parents and I had a very interesting talk about this when I was visiting them in Utah lately. I told them that I felt that a devout Mormon had more in common with a devout Buddhist or a devout Muslim or a devout Catholic, than with a Mormon who does not believe or practice his or her faith; and they agreed. To the extent we engage, to the extent we enter into a real relationship with God, we are on the path.

Rational, righteous people may evaluate the same data and come to different conclusions. Fortunately, Mormons have a system of belief that does not exclude anybody from the Celestial Kingdom on the grounds that, righteous and devout though they were, they failed to pick the "right" religion. We see the path of understanding truth as a process that extends far beyond this life. And we also understand that it is by our conscience and by what we know in this life that we will be judged; not by what we did not know.

Given that we don't know what process is going on in someone else's mind or conscience, it would be arrogant indeed to assert that a devout Catholic who received the missionary discussions and decided after all that they did not believe in Mormonism was going to be damned. (I taught a number of such people in France on my mission, and I was struck by how loving, Christ-centered, compassionate, and Spirit-filled they were. And I was surprised when such people did not just automatically convert.)

As I said on my own blog in response to your post on my "Clarification" post, I can only know what is going on in the context of my own relationship with God, not anyone else's. I know what the Spirit has revealed to me and no one else. I know what my conscience says and no one else's. It is against that scale I will be judged, and no one else.

Reason does not permit me to exclude the possibility that the Spirit is alive and at work in many different churches, and is inspiring them with testimonies of their own faiths that are as vibrant and powerful as mine. But I do not know what the Spirit is doing in their lives, and it is not my place to judge anyone or to do anything but love unconditionally and strive for peace and understanding between all people, regardless of whether they share my faith or not.