Testimony is clearly a central component of Latter-day Saint thought and culture. Testimony is a sacred discourse, with all of the power and potential that the sacred holds. One of my VCR-repair professors once came to church and remarked about the ubiquitousness of the term and how it is employed at the end of every talk and lesson. We devote entire sacrament meetings to the vocalization and production of this kind of utterance. Even in our publications and blogs, we come to expect and even demand the bearing of a testimony as an essential part of the discourse of recognizably Latter-day Saint speech. I once attended a wonderful academic-oriented fireside that was seen as a mild disappointment by some because the speaker didn’t conclude with the usual set of “I knows.” Such speech is so important that LDS leadership is continuously worried about the boundaries of such speech, constantly reminding us to limit our testimonies to only a few central issues. But given it extreme importance, what sorts of ethical obligations does one have in the bearing of it? Because so much weight is placed on it, what is the ethical burden that should accompany such critical speech? How might we engage others that may overstep the ethical imperatives for invoking such potent discourse?
There are common criticisms of the LDS testimony-bearing culture, such as that we over-testify, that we use the terms “I know” uncritically and unhelpfully, etc. I am not particularly interested in these criticisms per se, but rather I would like to look at a basis for evaluating testimonies, or more specifically, a basis for evaluating the bearing of one’s own testimony. What criteria should we have for evaluating testimonies that we hear and that we bear?
Sometimes our testimonies can offend others. I am sure that in this case it is nearly always unintentionally, unless one is explicitly bearing testimony “against” the questions, actions, or experiences of fellow Saints in such a way that is designed to exclude and marginalize. It is clear that we can say that in such circumstances, testimony discourse is likely inappropriate. However, in other cases, we might bear testimony of the miraculous healing we have experienced, meanwhile someone in the congregation has not experienced such a miracle and be hurt that your testimony implied that the Lord has healed you, but not healed them. In other cases, we might bear testimony that the Lord answers prayers, but someone in the congregation has only experienced God’s inexplicable silence. Sometimes we might bear testimony that we “know” principle X (e.g., women should sacrifice their careers for their children) is true, when the working moms in the congregation disagree either out of necessity or different principles.
Is the mode of testimony-bearing such that it is simply never appropriate to question it, to suggest alternatives, to offer counter-experiences? If so, can the mode of testimony bearing be abused? Can one couch an opinion mingled with scripture in such a way that they consider it to be an unassailable truth without any further need for reflection? A testimony! A testimony! We already have a testimony!
Now, I am not suggesting that after Fast and Testimony meeting one should approach members of the congregation to dispute their testimony. Not even close. In fact, I want to emphasize the kind of “criticism” that I am speaking about is not negative in nature, but ideally a kind of constructive engagement in the vein of the principles of charity, patience, and understanding that we hold dear. But, if we accept that in some circumstances critical engagement is warranted, what might those circumstances be?
One option might be that we consider a difference between private and public testimony as the kind of testimony that could be open to critical engagement. We might define private speech to be the testimony expressed within the safety of a testimony meeting, and this space has a kind of sacred protection. We might say that public speech is something more like written materials, like those published by leaders, scholars, and other writers in magazines, blogs, books, perhaps even instructional classrooms such as at BYU, Institute, and Sunday School. This is the kind of testimony that should not be shielded from criticism precisely because it is made public, it is held out as representative of a kind of normative view of the world shared by Latter-day Saints. Those who are willing to make their views public must also be willing to engage or withstand the kind of respectful, internal criticism offered by other sincere Latter-day Saints who may have concerns about the implications of such claims to normative Mormonism and the kinds of exclusions, occlusions, or other problems that such views might engender, let alone critical “outsiders” who may also encounter such testimony. I am not sure that such a binary holds up, and that there aren’t further ethical considerations in interacting with the testimonies of others, so feel free to offer more suggestions.
But this is only about dealing with the testimonies of others. In the bearing of our own testimonies, what sorts of ethical obligations do we bear? How should we counterbalance the sharing of our own experiences with the potential that such experiences might be misconstrued, misunderstood, or found offensive to others? Some people simply choose to bear their testimonies infrequently as a result, and even then leaving their most private experiences private. Perhaps this is one solution. In truth, I like to hear about the miracles in people’s lives, though I am hesitant because I know that when borne they pierce the heart of the soon-to-be young widow in our congregation whose prayers have not be answered.
In other cases, we may feel the need to correct the mistaken views of our fellow Saints through the authoritative language of testimony simply because such views are seriously misguided to the degree that they threaten the unity of the church or the potential salvation of that individual, such as in the case of someone who is advocating polygamy, or publicly and viciously denouncing the prophets, etc. But what are the limits on such testimonies? Can we go too far in a way that simply polarizes the issue further, or perhaps even worse, appears to be insincere testimony born from condemnation, anger, fear, and disagreement, rather than love?