January 3, 2012 @ 11:48 pm
These days as a person with a secular worldview, I must confess up front I have a slight distaste for statements of faith. It’s not that all my beliefs or actions have scientific evidence to back them up. I try, but that would be a standard of perfection beyond any sane person’s ambition. Besides as we all know, 99% of our interactions in life are one-off situations—minutiae of work and home life where the grand repeatable ideas of science don’t hold sway. Oh sure, the laws of physics still apply, but we don’t live our lives in controlled circumstances. We aren’t lab rats, let alone accelerated particles.
Rather it’s that the word faith conjures up herds of images and assumptions that repel me. The idea that we should positively esteem popular notions of faith, that we should actively seek to increase our beliefs in unprovable claims, particularly claims which bear on our lives or on the physical world—this strikes me as obviously foolish and harmful. I think we humans already operate with too much certainty about nonsense, not to mention actual falsehoods. We don’t suffer from a lack of faith.
But the Mormon testimony, ah! now that’s a special breed of faith. I wonder if mainstream Christians would recognize this exotic creature as a brother to their thing-called-faith. Or would they see it like I do, as a kind of fetish? The LDS faithful venerate and… yes, cherish… what they call their testimony in a unique set of rituals and practices. If you want to understand members (what they call themselves) of The Church (as members refer to their religion), you must appreciate the contours of the Mormon Testimony.
I look back on my 20-plus years of Mormon testimony without real bitterness, but with a measure of fondness and rue. It’s like reminiscing about a great love which ended badly. You know how it goes. It’s tempting to blame myself or tell myself I knew better all along, but in reality I bought the whole thing. I was like other Mormons. That “testimony” was more precious to me than most other things in life.1
Most of my friends in high school weren’t Mormon. Sure, we talked about beliefs a lot, but they were bemused at best by my “testimony”. My best friend in high school practically dared me: if something that special had happened to me… if I possessed that kind of special knowledge, why didn’t I share it with the world? Why didn’t I talk about it even more than I did.
Here’s the thing. Mormons aren’t content to believe. Notice that verb, believe? They aren’t happy with a mere verb. They aren’t even content with a relatively tame noun: faith. Faith is to Mormon “testimony” what coca leaves are to pure cocaine. Mormons have concentrated faith to its most concentrated form, refined it into an intoxicating drug… to the hottest, most extreme form of belief I have ever witnessed in person. That is the Mormon testimony.
Witness the Mormon Fast and Testimony Meeting. Members of The Church gather once a month. They are instructed to attend this meeting in a state of fasting, forgoing food but not water for up to 24 hours, except children and infirm. The usual worship service, Sacrament Meeting, is suspended so that members can participate in this monthly ritual.
Members of The Church take turns rising to the pulpit, or in some cases standing in place and accepting a portable microphone from an usher. They begin a heartfelt recitation of the reasons they “know The Church is true”. This testimony is extemporaneous, but it is almost always built out of a few set phrases. Children are taught the accepted mode of this performance from a very young age, primarily by example.
Before I tell you the words which make up the typical Mormon “testimony”, let me emphasize that heartfelt again is too weak a word. How often in daily life do we share tear-soaked stories of what we hold “most precious”? How often do we gentiles (as Mormons call us non-members) get to publicly expose the most tender, intimate feelings of our heart? To express in fervent tones how “absolutely CERTAIN” we are that “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God”?
Here are some more of the tried-and-true phrases from Mormon “testimonies”. These words give you a small taste of the Mormon “testimony”, but you must remember that just knowing the phraseology is not enough. You have to imagine your friends and neighbors reciting these clichés every month: their heads, hands and voices shaking in fervent belief, their faces streaming with tears of sincerity… swelling with the desire to make you believe as they do.
- I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. [Yes. They. Say. This.]
- Jesus is The Christ.
- Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God.
- The other day my ___ [puppy] was almost ___ [caught in a table saw]. When it miraculously ___ [went my way], I knew that ___. [The Church was True, Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God, Jesus was The Savior, etc.]
- I Know The Church Is True.
- … Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt. [!!]
- I don’t just believe, I KNOW it! I know it!
- At funerals, the deceased are praised for the sweetness or strength of their “testimony”. How powerful it was.
- Members repeatedly refer to their “testimony” as their most prized possession, precious above anything else except their family… and sometimes even more so.
All of this has terrific impact. You cannot help but be affected by the sheer emotional power of Mormon members’ personal conviction. For most of us, quotidian life drones along with trouble and uncertainty. At monthly Fast And Testimony Meeting, Mormons receive a bear-tranquilizer dose of complete certainty—high emotions and bodily fluids dished out like freshly cut nerves on a platter.
I am not writing to ridicule this ritual, although any deep sentiment is vulnerable to ridicule. (In my daily post-Mormon life, I’m as deeply sentimental as the next guy, and I don’t believe in taking cheap shots.) Instead, I’m trying to explore how unique, how singular is this thing Mormons call their “testimony”.
Here’s the strangest part. Sometimes they will talk about their past selves, but they will identify more strongly with their testimony than with their actual self. They’ll say, “I went through a period where my testimony was severely tested.” See the difference? They don’t say, “Sometimes I believe less strongly, but now I believe very, very strongly.” In effect they are saying,
“This ‘testimony’ is my real, true self. The rest of me—that part of me which would ever question this “testimony”—is like a foreign object. It is an intruder and I reject it.”
What more can I tell you? Mormons obsess about the influence of The Adversary, The Devil, The Evil One, The Father of Lies. (2) This is another way they split their mind. The good part is themselves, their “testimony” or “The Spirit”. The bad part is “The Adversary”.
God help them if members of The Church ever find themselves questioning! This is as dangerous a word as you can find in the Mormon vocabulary. It brings up dark, shadowy feelings of eternal peril—paranoia about an Adversary who is “cunning” and never-tiring in his efforts to deceive “yea! even the very elect!” (the special ones who are Chosen of The Lord)
True, Mormons believe that Judgment Day will be even more dire for “apostates” or “sons of Perdition”—those who once “knew the truth” and now “actively fight against it”. But I would argue that greater psychological paranoia swirls around members who are questioning, because apostates are by definition lost causes, whereas members who are questioning stand in a liminal state. On the one hand, safety. On the other, hellfire… losing any chance at exaltation and eternal life. Total loss.
This part is reminiscent of North Korea. With the passing of Kim Jong-Il, you may have heard that North Koreans conceive of themselves as a uniquely pure and paradoxically vulnerable race. Mormons are somewhat similar. Because The Evil One has singled them out, he targets even those who were “most valiant in the Pre-Existence”… “that he may deceive, yea!, even the very elect”. Mormons refer to themselves figuratively as Israel and to Utah as Zion.
This is another manifestations of Mormons’ “Chosen People” status, their spiritual narcissism… one more side of Mormon religious chauvinism.
1 Like most Mormons, I did share my “testimony” pretty often. But even in my teens I could see both sides of the issue. I could see that my mainstream Christian and nonbelieving friends had logically consistent positions. And besides even Mormons—who repeat the slogan, “every member a missionary!”—don’t want to crash a party when they’re not invited. Like most people, I was abashed at sharing my testimony where I feared it was unwanted or subject to ridicule.
2 Yes, Mormons believe in a personal Devil as well as a personal Savior. The LDS leadership frowns upon dwelling too long on The Adversary. But many a “testimony” has meandered into a confessional blow-by-blow about the coarse charms of The Evil One. These poorly received “testimonies” are more like 12-step confessionals of personal sin. In my experience, they only happened every few months, maybe once a year.