Testimony and Ethics

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?

22 Replies to “Testimony and Ethics”

  1. You’re very clear that the one bearing testimony has all sorts of obligations to those who hear or read it, regardless of the fact that the one bearing testimony has little to no control over the world view, attitudes, temperament, political ideologies, or momentary pique of those listeners and readers.

    You’re far less clear about the obligations of the listeners and readers. What obligations do you impose on those readers, especially when they are guests in someone else’s space?

    That a reader is offended by a testimony, even when offense was not intended, does not give the reader an automatic license to tell the one bearing testimony where she went wrong and in which and how many ways she was offensive, or to request that she temper her testimony because somebody else might not like it, or to suggest what the bearer should have said, if only that bearer were as wise, as sensitive to alternate voices, and as educated as the reader himself.

  2. On the contrary Ardis, I think that it is precisely because “one has little to no control” over their listeners that testimony bearing should be done with a sense of the sacred burden that it carries.

    I think that you raise an excellent point about the obligations of listeners. I wasn’t entirely silent on this issue since I did suggest that “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.” Indeed, I end up with the same question that you have about how to interact with testimonies that we hear when I ask, “if we accept that in some circumstances critical engagement is warranted, what might those circumstances be?” Then I suggested one such set of circumstances, namely, public discourse. I admit that I don’t really know the answer to this question, and I am open to hearing other perspectives on how to handle this kind of sacred speech.

    Let’s say that you’re right that a reader does not have license to disagree with the testimony of another by offering other ways of thinking about it, even when the testimony itself is presented as a rebuttal to that view. How far do you take this? Is it an accurate representation of your view to say that you believe that the sacredness of whatever one labels as testimony not be open to dialogue and discussion only when one is a “guest” on someone’s website, or does extend to other spaces? What “license,” if any, do you think there is for constructive conversation on an issue on which there may be reasonable disagreement, or can that conversation simply not take place as soon as one party invokes the sacred protection of “testimony”?

  3. I should like to clarify something in my post. I am not primarily interested in the category of “offense” as it relates to testimony since for me this implies too much emotion as a category of analysis, though many of the examples I gave do fall into this category. Rather, I am more interested in areas of disagreement, where offense might be a species of a larger genus of disagreement.

  4. I think it is appropriate to say what methods we have used to come closer or to “know” something. Merely saying, “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God” could be more useful for the listener (and the speaker) by saying something like, “After sincere prayer and study, I had a confirmation that Joseph Smith was a prophet.” This enables the listener to feel that there was not simply an epiphany – that there is substance and thought and work behind the testimony.

    Furthermore, acknowledging that not all people have the same privileges you have had can be helpful in easing the burden that the listener may feel. I once heard a talk in which the speaker described all sorts of good counsel she’d been given; but they were placed in situations that most would never face (BYU or Harvard, being a missionary even when on vacation in a far-off place) that came off as remarkably insensitive. Had she prefaced these examples with remarking that she’d had incredible and unusual experiences, I and other would have felt better about her testimony.

    I believe I was in attendance at the “wonderful academic-oriented fireside” that you mention; I think it was startling to listeners that the speaker did not conclude with a testimony, and given the nature of the topic, left some wondering how the knowledge might have affected the speakers testimony. For others, (myself included), it was refreshing to hear an active member give such a fireside. I think that was an issue of expectations.

    Well written post and good thoughts. Thanks!

  5. Does the Church Handbook of Instructions tell the presiding officers in fast and testimony meetings to correct any false doctrine that is taught over the pulpit? If so, does this mechanism work effectively at offering some “criticism” of testimonies?

    Do we believe D&C 46:13-14 teaches that some members are born with a testimony of the gospel while others are born with an ability to believe on their words? If so, how do we critique the truths that these individuals feel that they were born believing?

  6. As I read this post I saw in my minds eye the way the military treats new recruits. They put everyone in the same uniform, give everyone the same haircut, and then teach the recruits the importance of showing respect to those in positions of higher authority.

    I realize this post wasn’t attempting to put those who bear their testimonies in the same position as a new military recruit, but nonetheless this is what came to mind.

    I feel our testimony meetings would be more Spiritual if those who came to the meeting actually fasted. Is it unethical to pay a fast offering when one didn’t really fast? Does that cheapen the offering?

    Of course, there are some members who can’t fast, and certainly they are exceptions, but those who can, but choose not to because they are not willing to make the sacrifice, may be detracting from the Spirit of the meeting.

  7. rvs,
    I agree completely that when we can contextualize our testimony experiences, they are much more powerful. As for the example you give about humility in our testimonies, I think that is an excellent point.

    IIRC, the CHI does give some responsibility here. In my experience, this is rarely done only in the most extreme circumstances. I think that you are right that it might work in the cases where a testimony is manifestly inflammatory or advocates something in egregious opposition to the church. In a sense, I am more interested in the other kinds of testimonies. What should the working mother say, if anything, to the RSP who repeatedly bears her testimony about how mothers should stay at home? What should the older single person say to a bishop who insists that they get married to someone, anyone, in order to be saved? But really, I am interested in the moments in which we bear our own testimonies, when we invoke that time as sacred speech, what responsibilities we have toward others? Can we misuse this sacred power?

    I am not sure that those who benefit from the fast offerings would agree that a fast offering without fasting has cheapened it. Certainly, fasting is a commandment and a beneficial spiritual practice, but I think our communities would suffer if we were to elevate its importance to such a degree that only those who practiced it were able to participate.
    As for the military comparison, I don’t follow.

  8. I don’t really like the idea of correcting or rebutting anyone’s testimony. I know your thought is more complex than that, but I think it’s really important that we all cultivate a lot of tolerance for potentially “offensive” testimonies. I also think it’s wrong to expect the bishop to have to correct or smooth over someone’s potentially offensive, policially controversial, or non-doctrinal testimony, except maybe in the most extreme circumstances. Every ward has a few eccentric or otherwise challenging personalities. Part of being a welcoming group is being willing to look past weirdness, tactlessness, stupidity, etc.

  9. I have a radical experiment in mind, but I wonder what ward would be daring enough to try it. On Fast Sunday, while testimonies are being born, the members in the congregation could twitter their responses and create a conversation complete with feedback. If done in the right spirit, this could provide constructive criticism and help bearers of testimonies to be more attuned to the needs of their audience. I only bring this up because I attended an “unconference” this summer where almost everyone was on twitter and the backchannel conversation was tremendously interesting and useful.

  10. TT–

    Those who receive money benefit, no doubt, but if the giver would fast and pray they would benefit by advancing Spiritually, whereas they forfeit that blessing by not fasting.

  11. E,
    I agree with you actually that the idea makes me uncomfortable too. But I am also uncomfortable with the fact that some people may seek to cloak their personal opinions in the language of “testimony” as a way to prevent having to defend their ideas, or to have to think critically about the implications of what they are saying. I am trying to find a middle ground, a safe space in which it might be possible to speak about this kind of sacred speech.

    I stand by my original claim that the kind of commentary about testimonies that I am talking about should really be off limits in a testimony meeting. There, I think that testimonies should enjoy the double protection of sacred speech and sacred space, as a place where the Saints may freely express their heartfelt convictions. The best that we can do in those situations, I think, is follow our own ethical compass about what it is appropriate to share in such circumstances.
    For the kind of useful interaction with the testimonies of others, in a way I see the blogs as fulfilling this function, where we may bear testimony and hear testimony in the context of a community of discussion, conversation, disagreement, and hopefully mutual understanding. This constitutes a “public” testimony that is open to essentially the entire world that I think could be productively engaged.

    Agreed. I am just not sure that it should be enforced.

  12. You may be right. There is something more sacred about testimony meetings. But they still feel quite public to me. I mean we even encourage investigators to attend on fast Sunday and hear the wide range of testimonies.

    Do you recall if President Packer wrote in _Teach Ye Diligently_ that a wise patriarch offered him some counsel and criticism when he started speaking in church as a young man, that Bro. Packer initially resisted the advice, but soon after saw the wisdom of receiving feedback for his talks and testimony?

  13. Sterling,
    I agree that my distinction between private and public testimony is not totally sufficient because it is always in a way a false distinction. The private is always “public” in some sense and the public can be directed at a smaller, private audience. So, I agree that I’m not totally satisfied with this standard.

    Maybe what I mean is the difference between written and oral, where written work be considered more deliberative, and held to a higher level of scrutiny. Do you think this works any better, or is it too a slippery distinction? Do you have any thoughts about how to distinguish between types of testimony that it is okay to critically engage, and others that should be left alone?

    I think that is a great suggestion from Elder Packer. Not all advice is wanted, and it is certainly not all good, but it can be useful!

  14. Since they do not know, TT, you should be candid enough to explain that this post is in response to a recent post of mine on Keepapitchinin. Launching off a Sunstone remark that a male good could not understand the pains of women’s bodies, I bore my testimony to one aspect of the Atonement, expressed in 2 Nephi 20-21, that Christ “suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam.”

    My 760-word post was answered by a 692-word comment by TT, dismantling my testimony in academic terms, describing the Christ I believe in as “a sort of a queer Jesus that [I] imagine,” and otherwise derailing the discussion I had hoped to have.

    The content of my testimony and TT’s objections to it are of course subject to discussion, if he wishes — but not necessarily at any time and in any place. By all means, rip me up one side and down the other as is your habit, TT, but please, hijacking my testimony because it didn’t say what you would have said in the terms you prefer to use, and doing it as a guest in my space when you haven’t done a thing to support Keepa in the past, is no more appropriate than if you were to jump to your feet as a guest in a Methodist camp meeting to shout down the speaker by telling her why her story of faith in Jesus just can’t stand up to your academic scrutiny.

    Boundaries, man.

  15. Ardis,
    You’re right that this post was prompted by your deleting of my comments, but I wouldn’t say that it is a “response.” I thought that your invocation of the speech of “testimony” (though this word wasn’t used until after I raised an objection to some of your characterizations of those you were disagreeing with) as a kind of discourse that should not be questioned was an interesting point and I wanted to explore it in an abstracted way about how to handle sacred speech. I have offered here some suggestions, and conceded some of my points, and expressed hesitancy around how to go about engaging with this kind of language that I acknowledge as being sacred.

    I am sorry if I “derailed the discussion” you hoped to have by disagreeing with you. I thought that was a discussion. FWIW, my intent was not to “dismantle” your testimony in any way whatsoever, nor to “rip you up one side and down the other.” I know that most of your comments on your excellent posts are justifiably praiseworthy, so disagreement may not be what you’re used to. But, in fact I agree with you when push comes to shove. Rather, I was objecting to your dismissal of this theological problem as some that LDSs “should know better” about and your general pity for those who can’t read what the male-authored scriptures plainly teach about a man’s ability to understand a woman’s body.

    In general, as in the past, I think you over-read my disagreements with you as personal attacks when I am just trying to have a conversation. You attribute to me extreme hostility towards you and your ideas which just isn’t there. You ignore my emails to you and my invitations for you to email me to get to the bottom of your anger toward me. I maintain that open channel should you ever wish to get past this.

    As for your accusations that I am some stranger in your midst, it is simply not true. We are members of the same blogging community. We have the same friends. We are interested in the same things. You are not a Methodist camp meeting and I am not a “guest” on the internet. I’ve commented on your posts before along the lines of “This is the best post I’ve ever read on this subject.” We’ve had pleasant exchanges on other blogs. We are supposed to be friends. Let’s try it.

    To get back to the main issue I am addressing in this post, I am interested in your suggestion: “The content of my testimony and TT’s objections to it are of course subject to discussion, if he wishes — but not necessarily at any time and in any place.” I take this as an important point, and in fact I am trying to figure out what exactly those times and places where such discussion might occur might be. I think that we disagree that it is on a blog, on the internet. What times and places do you envision such a discussion occurring and why?

  16. Written vs. oral may be a better distinction. At least the CHI seems to agree when it says we should not publish notes from unscripted GA talks.

  17. “What criteria should we have for evaluating testimonies that we hear and that we bear? ”

    For me it is false conclusions: I can honestly saw “After (or during) X, Y”, but I can’t honestly conclude “After X,Y; therefore Z”. ‘After I read a verse I had a good feeling’ (this is a true statement, but if I add “therefore the organization that published the book is true or therefore the book is true”, then I’ve made a false conclusion.)

  18. I long ago accepted our vocabulary of certainty, even though I would welcome a vocabulary of faith. In any case, I am firmly of the opinion that a testimony should be a spontaneous outpouring of the heart. No one should ever — ever — have to produce a testimony on demand.

  19. Several months ago I (it’s a long story) lost my testimony. Because I still respected the core values I had learned at church, I wondered at first if I should continue to attend & enjoy that part of church I found so positive. But the longer I stayed, the more uncomfortable I became. Now that I didn’t ‘know’ these things (didn’t believe others) it was all around – in the talks, the lessons (the church manuals include instructions for the teacher to bear testimony), the songs the primary children sang (a huge percentage of the newer songs are about testimony and missionary work – they used to be about nature and loving others and family) – every week…we know, we know, we know.

    I started to really think about what would happen if I stayed at church and was completely honest about my doubts and about the fact that I no longer felt I had a testimony. No calling, no temple recommend, no honest participation in lessons because I would be seen as trying to sow seeds of doubt in others. Teaching, which I have always loved, would never again be part of my church experience.

    Testimony is crucial to an adult member of the church. Without it, or at least a pretense of it, you are always going to be a fringe dweller in Mormon society. I knew it was pointless and I certainly knew I couldn’t pretend to believe. I explained this to one member whose response was, ‘but if you don’t have a testimony, why would you even want to be involved or around members?’ Hmmm.

    Eventually I didn’t. Despite the fact that my values and lifestyle have changed very little since I left, that culture of certainty became creepier as time went on. Testimony should be an affirmation, and an encouragement. It shouldn’t be a required badge of membership that you have to keep showing to prove you belong there.

  20. chosha,
    It sounds like a tough situation. I think that your instinct is right on this one that “testimony” becomes a boundary-marker for who is in and who is out. This sociological function of “testimony” then is used to exclude or self-select. I wish it wasn’t so since I think we lose too many good people who otherwise want to belong. Best wishes for your future journey.

  21. Thanks TT. I wonder how many other people have felt the way I did. I also wonder about non-members who visit church. I wonder how much of their ‘conversion’ might be about feeling that sense of community and knowing that all they need to do to be accepted is believe. I’m not saying that no-one really believes when they are baptised. But there are a large percentage of newly-baptised members who become less active soon after. I wonder if some of them arrive at church one Sunday a few months after their baptism and realise that they just don’t have the same conviction as those around them seem to. That shouldn’t matter in regard to them being there, but it does.

    I think roger’s comment at #18 is interesting. I wonder how different things would be if testimony was delivered in a vocabulary of faith instead of certainty. After all, the crucial aspect of LDS Christian living is ‘faith and works’, not ‘knowledge and works’. Stating belief instead of knowledge shouldn’t diminish what people are expressing and may be more inclusive to others (and more honest to boot).

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