Thursday, July 28, 2005

More on Worthiness and Testimony

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.


I think that being exposed to miracles is different from being a part of a miracle. Think of Jerico. All those on the losing side were exposed to a miracle.

Or the Egyptians and Moses.

BTW on my blog I've discussed faith in several layers, including one that applies to this discussion. I'd appreciate your thoughts or comments.

Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) | 7/31/2005 09:23:00 PM  

Stephen, I appreciate your comment, but find it a bit cryptic. Rather than guess at your meaning, what is the lesson I'm supposed to take away from the distinction between being exposed to a miracle vs. being part of one? Also, I read your post, but am not sure which of your levels of faith you think is relevant here, and what the specific connection is. Forgive me for being dense. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 8/01/2005 03:45:00 PM  

I really think that it is valuable to consider the argument of Nate Oman regarding the transformative nature of faith, spiritual experiences and religious "knowing". That transformation is essentially the difference between the Laman and Lemuel experiences and those of Saul and Alma. Saul and Alma had the humility to accept their experiences as being something from God and recognized their unworthiness and made the changes.

As for worthiness, I don't know if any of us are "worthy" of any spiritual experiences. Many people have the experiences of Alma and Saul (in that they are completely transformed due to spiritual experiences that come without their bidding) because they are willing to be transformed. Ultimately, any degree of sin distances us from the Father and the influence of the Holy Ghost. George W. Bush makes this point in one of his few (published) profound moments referring to homosexuality: "He said he told Mr. Robison: "Look, James, I got to tell you two things right off the bat. One, I'm not going to kick gays, because I'm a sinner. How can I differentiate sin?" "

We really can't. Sin is sin and if we have to be clean and pure to receive revelation, none would receive. If we all got what we deserved, we would all be consigned to HELL without any spiritual teaching.

I agree with Pete's analogy, however, that most of the times we receive divine knowledge and influence is when we are actually sitting down and paying attention: we are then more likely to receive the divine "broadcast signal."

So worthiness itself rarely, if ever, brings spiritual manifestations. These acts that we call "worthiness" only serve to demonstrate our willingness to change and be transformed by the love of Christ. Recall that Alma didn't transform because of the angel appearing and calling him to repentance. He transformed because he sought mercy from Christ. 

Comment by Mike W. | 8/03/2005 02:12:00 PM  

Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I don't think I completely agree with the "any sin is sin" idea, but I think what you notice about Alma is interesting. In my counterfactual musings about his experience I always imagined that he never would have woken up had he not called upon Christ. Also, as I think I've mentioned before, I have always thought it remarkable that in Alma 5 (:45-46 I think) he told the people he had to fast and pray many days to know if those things were true, even after seeing an angel. It would make more sense if he said something like, 'I know these things are true because they were declared to me by an angel, but it took a lot of fasting and prayer for me to bring my character into alignment with these truths.'

So I agree that "manifestations" do not automatically cause character transformation. But I'm also not persuaded that the intentional lack of manifestations somehow enhances transformation. Furthermore, I have serious reservations that given a successful transformation (Elder Scott's "essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions"), one can infer the existence of a spiritual agency that made this possible. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 8/14/2005 05:18:00 PM  



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