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Posts Tagged ‘Testimony’

“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18

“For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:22-24

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” Galatians 6:14

“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample. (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)” Philippians 3:17-19

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I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

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I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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I’ve tried to articulate one particular problem I have with Mormonism, and it never seems to go over very well. The topic came up on one of my favorite blogs, Dando’s Mormon and Evangelical Conversations, and while discussing it (and being accused of spouting ridiculous nonsense), I decided to try explaining it using a strictly Mormon point of view, and I think I did a pretty good job (although nobody has responded to it, so I might be dead wrong):

Mormonism stresses the importance of gaining a testimony of critical principles of the Gospel, right? That testimony is theoretically gained by praying for a manifestation from the Holy Spirit of the truth of something.

Lets say I’ve read the Bible and I want to know if Jesus is really my savior. According to Mormonism, if I pray and ask God, he’ll tell me, and I’ll have a testimony of it, right? Now, that testimony is sufficient to infer the truth of the bible, because history places Jesus squarely in the middle of it. Sure, I could also pray to know that the Bible is true, but I don’t need to. Because if I know that Jesus is the Christ by the power of the Holy Ghost, the that means the New Testament must be true, and since the New Testament affirms the Old Testament on a number of occasions, I can also therefore infer that the Old Testament is true. I certainly don’t need to pray for a specific testimony based on a spiritual witness of each book of the Bible, each apostle, each epistle, and each prophet, do I? Again, I could if I wanted to, but it isn’t critical. If God has witnessed to me the truth of Jesus Christ’s divinity and mission, then the rest can be reasonably inferred.

But my testimony of Jesus Christ alone doesn’t let me reasonably infer the truth of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or the Latter-Day church.

In order to know those things, I also have to pray to ask if either 1) the Book of Mormon is true or 2) Joseph smith was a prophet of God. Mormonism teaches that once I know either of those things, I can reasonably infer the rest: if I know that the Book of Mormon is true, then I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. If I know that, then I also know that the D&C and PoGP are true. I also know that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true, that the Priesthood was restored, and that the church is still led by a prophet, that the plan of salvation as laid out in the LDS church is true, that the Word of Wisdom is true, etc.

I can get individual spiritual confirmation of each of these if I want or if I’m having a particular struggle, but the standard answer is that I should be able to get a testimony of just the one thing (either the BoM or the First Vision) and reasonably infer the rest. Latter-day prophets have taught that, and the missionaries teach that all the time.

If all I had was a spiritual witness of Jesus Christ, I could in the same way infer the truth of the Bible and the Biblical prophets, and even reasonably infer the truth of the early Christian church, based on their historical connection to Jesus Christ, either before or after. A testimony of Jesus would be enough to let me be a faithful Protestan, Catholic, Orthodox Christian. But a testimony of Jesus alone isn’t enough to convince me of the truth of Mormonism.

To be a Mormon, I would at the very least need to get a separate testimony of The BoM or Joseph Smith. And I find that problematic because to me it places them on the same level as Jesus in terms of where our faith is placed.

What I find more problematic is that many Mormons don;t have a separate testimony of Jesus and BoM/JS, but that instead they begin with a testimony of the Book of Mormon or JS and infer the rest, including inferring the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, and the truth (or at least general reliability) of the bible.

That means for many Mormons, the lynchpin of their faith is not Jesus Christ, but Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. Either that or they have two equal lynchpins, only one of which is Jesus.

If your faith is built on anything but Jesus Christ, you have a house built on sand. I think that’s why it seems that most people who leave Mormonism become atheists: their faith was ultimately grounded in the Restoration, not in Jesus, and when they lost faith in the Restoration, they lost faith in everything.

Put in non-Mormon terms, one problem I have with Mormonism is that it requires separate and independent faith in something other than Jesus Christ. As a non-Mormon, I can begin with faith in Jesus Christ and then because of his place in the Biblical text and his context in history, I can infer pretty much the rest of Christianity, without having to exercise actual faith in anything else. But because the Book of Mormon and the latter-day Restoration occur outside of the continuity of Jesus’s historical and theological context, I actually have to at least exercise separate and independent faith in them, from which I can at least reasonably infer the rest of the truth of Mormonism.

Alternately, and this is the unfortunate path taken by all too many Mormons, I can ground my faith in the Restoration or the Book of Mormon and use that faith to infer Jesus’s divinity along with the rest of Mormonism.

Either way is troubling because it elevates something other than Jesus to at least the same level as Jesus, if not to a higher level, in terms of our framework of faith and belief. Essentially, in Sermon-on-the-Mount terms, that is building a house on sand instead of rock, and it’s why Mormons os often lose faith in everything when they lose faith in Mormonism. Their entire belief system was grounded in Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon instead of in Jesus Christ.

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I had a great discussion with my mother a few days ago (she’s a true believing Mormon) about the difference between faith and testimony in Mormon theology, and I’ve been mulling around some thoughts about it ever since.

“Testimony,” as commonly used by Mormons, is an unfortunate term. It’s an umbrella term, a thought-construct composed of several different distinct but related concepts, but they’re all blurred together into one conglomerate noun in the Mormon vernacular. When the Holy Ghost bears witness of the truth of x, a Mormon calls that your testimony. When you tell others the religious things you believe or “know,” that’s also your testimony. Those two I can handle, but the third main use is the most vague and elusive, and the one least based in (even Mormon) scripture and theology. It’s this idea that a testiony is a thing, a noun, an intangible object that you actually have and need to nurture and work on so it grows.

It’s not the same thing as Faith, which is given some pretty clear and basically consistent definitions in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. Paul (or whoever wrote Hebrews) said “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (NIV). In the Book of Mormon, Alma said faith “is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true,” and Moroni said faith is “things which are hoped for and not seen.” None of those are really the same thing that Mormons are talking about when they talk about their testimony. Testimony is the assurance of the truth of Mormonism via mystical experiences.

Faith is consistently couched in terms like “hope.” Your testimony is the things you know. You might talk about faith in terms of certainty, but you would never describe a testimony using the word “hope.” Sure, the terms are similar, but they’re not identical.

In Mormon theology, such as it is, the requirments for salvation are faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost, and enduring to the end (which includes getting the necessary ordinances and priesthood, and continuing to develop faith, repent of sins, and renew your baptismal covenant by taking the sacrament). Testimony per se is not a requirement for the Celestial Kingdom. There’s not testimony checker at the pearly gates. Nevertheless, Mormons constantly talk about the necessity of having a testimony, as if it is basically the most important thing in Mormonism.

It has no real connected place in Mormon theology, so why is it necessary? All of the critical steps (the principles and ordinances of the gospel) for salvation are obtainable without ever once feeling the Holy Ghost, much less Getting a Testimony.

There’s a weird inconsistency yhere that bothers me. Basically, what it boils down to is that Mormonism in practice focuses almost obsessively on the need for the individual to experience successive, ongoing conversion experiences. No wonder Mormons are able to simply ignore their doubts and criticisms of the church that they hear! They are spending their time and effort constantly converting themselves. Why? I think it’s because without constant conversion-as-reinforcement, Mormonism doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Testimony may not actually be a requirement for salvation in Mormonism, but if you aren’t constantly cultivating mystical confirmations of the Church’s truth, you’re far less likely to stay a member of a Church that is heavy-handed, authoritarian, wildly implausible, and extremely demanding.

I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “having a testimony.” I think that you can experience God through the Holy Spirit, and I think you can yourself bear witness to things you believe are true, but as far as this nebulous thing that you have, I think it’s a mental and cultural construct with no real existence. It’s a doublespeak term tat obscures what’s going on. Faith is something that you have. Testimony is something you hear or give.

Given that opinion, why then does it bother me when people say I must not have ever really had a testimony, seeing as how I left the Church. I mean, if I don;t believe that testimony exists, at least the way they’re talking about it, why do I care if they say I never had one? Again, it comes down to the nebulous doublespeak use of the term. When someone says I never had a testimony, they’re actually questioning whether I ever was really ommitted to the Church, and that pisses me off. I was raised in the Church, and I was a faithful member. I scrupulously tried to keep the commandments. I graduated from early morning seminary. I served an honorable mission and I worked incredibly hard, both physically and spiritually. I read the Book of Mormon again and again, not as a skeptic, but as an earnest believer. I married in the temple, which took great personal sacrifices on my part and on my wife’s part. I always paid a full tithe, and I gave generous fast offerings. I magnified my callings. I prayed daily. When doubts came, I did my best to resolve them. I tried to me a member-missionary, and I even tried my best to do my home teaching. I did everything I was supposed to do to “get a testimony,” and I did it with pure intentions, because I honestly thought it was all the right thing to do.

The Church promises that if you do this stuff, you’ll Get A Testimony. Thus, when people say I must not have had a testimony, they are insinuating that I never did the things that were required to get one, and that impugns my integrity and my earnestness, and that bothers me a lot.

I have to say that I believe that the Church is simply not true, at least it is not true the way it claims to be. It may be a fine place for some people, but it is certainly not God’s one true church, restored in these latter days in preparation for the second coming, led by living prophets, etc. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, but I do have a problem with people assuming that the only reason I came to the conclusion I did is that I wasn’t really genuinely committed and faithful in the first place. That’s just insulting.

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I tell myself that I’ll believe when I get a mystical experience of some kind.  Maybe I’m waiting for the wrong thing. If God is everywhere, then everything can be a mystical experience, right? Is it me that makes the critical difference?  That separates the mystical from the mundane?  Is it the interpretation that makes something sacred instead of profane?

Or am I kidding myself here?  Is that really just what I did as a Mormon, interpreting everyhting as a mystical experience and therefore as confirmation for my Mormon beliefs.  Maybe the problem there was that I was trying to get meaning out of mysticism, to use it like a magic eight-ball instead of simply to experience, to “be still and know that I am God.”

Or maybe I just want a mystical experience so bad that I’m starting to waver and to be willing to label plainly mundane things “mystical” just to avoid the sheer disappointment of God never happening.

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Hope

In all of this search for elusive faith, maybe I realy needed to start with hope instead.  I don’t know if I really have faith right now, but I feel like I have hope. And I feel like this is a big deal.

I grew up Mormon, which means the focus is on faith and testimony.  Hope isn’t given a prominent place.  I mean, it’s in the scriptures and everything, but it doesn’t really figure prominently into the Plan of Salvation unless its equated with Alma’s “desire to believe.”  But I don’t think hope is necessarily merely a lesser, subordinate or stepping-stone to the superior faith.  I think hope might be something completely independent of faith, but really important.

Is hope the same thing as “wishful thinking” which I’ve been extremely wary about? Maybe. Maybe it’s the other side of wishful thinking. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking from another perspective. Maybe the difference is what you do with it, how you react to it, that makes the difference between wishful thinking and hope.

I have nothing that looks even remotely like faith.  But I think hope is something that I can muster.  I wonder if that’s enough to get started with?

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