Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: What critics don't understand about testimony
In last week’s issue, I argued that secular evidences alone can never offer the power to convert anyone to the restored gospel. Undeniable secular evidences for Joseph Smith’s prophetic status would frustrate the necessity of agency and would still likely not change the hearts of those who adamantly reject the Prophet.
Critics typically claim that Latter-day Saints rely on “feelings” in lieu of “evidence” — thereby implying that there is no rational thought that factors into their spiritual testimonies. This is unmitigated nonsense and contains at least three errors — the first two of which will be discussed in this installment.
The first error is that all Latter-day Saint testimonies are void of reason and rationale. This is not, however, the way many member testimonies are formed and maintained. While a testimony must be grounded on a spiritual confirmation, the mind is an integral part of gaining our testimony. We are expected to use our minds to study the scriptures and learn what God wants.
When Oliver Cowdery made his failed attempt at translating the plates the Lord told him: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8).
Moroni (Moroni 10:3) and other prophets (2 Nephi 32:1) have counseled us to ponder things in our hearts — which sounds like an emotional rather than intellectual approach. Most people in ancient times, however, generally didn’t understand that the brain was the source for thoughts and reasoning. They typically believed that the heart was home for both the soul as well as the origination of thoughts.
While the Egyptians experimented with brain surgery, for instance, they nevertheless believed that the heart — not the brain — was the source for thoughts. To “ponder things in our hearts” means to include our brains in our spiritual quest.
As Latter-day Saints who believe that the glory of God is intelligence (D&C 93:36), we are told to seek wisdom from the best books (D&C 88:118) and learn more than just what we hear in Sunday School. We are encouraged to learn about astronomy, geology, history, current and foreign events, and much more (D&C 88: 79).
“Each of us,” said President Boyd K. Packer, “must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits but requires it.”
In 2007, the church published a statement about LDS doctrine which read in part:
"The church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.”
Latter-day Saints (like most other people who believe in a spiritual realm) believe that some evidence — such as a spiritual witness — can only come through faith, but they also maintain that faith and reason are not typically in conflict and that reason can support faith (more on this later).
The second error made by critics is the implication that a testimony is nothing more than “feelings” or emotions. They sometimes profane the “burning in the bosom” into something like what you could get from eating too much pizza. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:
“What does a ‘burning in the bosom’ mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word 'burning' in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works.”
“How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland? ...
“Fortunately, we are not left with emotion alone to discern God's hand in our lives. Reason, experience, counsel from others and other forms of revelation may all assist us. In fact, I notice that emotion plays into only some of my spiritual experiences, and often only in a secondary way. More often the spiritual promptings and confirmations I receive come very quietly as something simply occurs to me with a kind of rightness that has no real emotion attached to it at all. … Others have come as a pure love beyond my previous capacity to imagine. … I expect that people from many religious backgrounds may have such experiences, and I am comfortable imagining God in many of them, but they are not easily explained away as a self-produced warm feeling.”
What’s ironic about the “feelings/emotions” charge made by critics is that they often base their rejection of the restored gospel on emotions or non-intellectual reasons (as we will see in next week’s installment).
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