More on Worthiness and Testimony
by Christian Y. Cardall
One subject mentioned in a recent post was the connection between worthiness and testimony. Discussions with Pete raised a couple of interesting issues.
First, the outliers Saul, Laman and Lemuel, and Alma: Why did they receive concrete manisfestations, that are usually thought of as being reserved for the most worthy?
Second, there seem to be two different paradigms of the mechanism by which unworthiness impairs spiritual communication: (1) God withdrawing his presence, and (2) the unworthy individual’s ‘reception’ of a divine signal of constant strength getting mucked up. I made a subsidiary, more or less æsthetic argument against mechanism (1), saying that it seems unlike the way I would hope loving parents would act towards disobedient children. Pete brought up a different perspective, one that suggests mechanism (2): “it’s simply the difference between the kid running around shouting vs. the kid who is sitting still and listening—both have access to the parent in the room talking to them.”
Does Mormon doctrine clearly spell out which mechanism is at work? Scriptural notions of ‘God not dwelling in unholy temples’ and ‘the Spirit ceasing to strive with man’ seem to support mechanism (1). On the other hand, the notion of ‘hearts hardened against the word’—more in line with mechanism (2)—also appears in the scriptures.
Thinking naturalistically, and wondering about the extent to which the subjective experience of ‘testimony’ could be explained without the existence of God or the Holy Ghost, I discussed the possibility that the worthiness requirement’s efficacy may derive from the peace of social conformity, and therefore may not be good evidence of the reality of the Holy Ghost. In this connection, a description of testimony by Elder Richard G. Scott is instructive:
A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act, or of a warning of pending danger. Often such guidance is accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult to speak and bring tears to the eyes. But a testimony is not emotion. It is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions. These choices are made with trusting faith in things that are believed and, at least initially, are not seen. A strong testimony gives peace, comfort, and assurance. It generates the conviction that as the teachings of the Savior are consistently obeyed, life will be beautiful, the future secure, and there will be capacity to overcome the challenges that cross our path. A testimony grows from understanding truth, distilled from prayer and the pondering of scriptural doctrine. It is nurtured by living those truths in faith and the secure confidence that the promised results will be obtained.I appreciate Elder Scott’s recognition that powerful emotions are not necessarily diagnostic of the Holy Ghost. I also think his description of testimony as the essence of character (think ‘worthiness’) and trusting expectation (think ‘desire’)—having both behavioral roots and peaceful, optimistic fruits—is accurate, and perhaps even telling. Notice that choices generate conviction. What I don’t see in this description is anything of evidentiary value; it strikes me as a plausibly naturalistic process, not necessarily connected to a putative spiritual reality. It ‘works’ in some sense, leading to a functional, peaceful, and meaningful community; but it may be a working system of our own human devising. After all, the Amish system works just fine too, in its own ‘Pleasantville’ way.