Last Sunday I was browsing in the institute library (also known as ‘English language Priesthood Meeting’) and starting skimming Bruce Hafen’s The Believing Heart. In an early chapter, he identifies three elements of an individual’s testimony: the test of reason, the test of spiritual feeling and the test of experience.
I’m interested in the idea of definable elements of faith: perhaps, through this kind of analysis, we can come to a better understanding of what we as individuals believe and why. Looking at faith in this way demystifies a testimony and gives me a greater sense that I own my faith rather than having it on loan from the church. Here’s a quick look at the three elements.
The test of reason presents the clearest problem. Hafen breezes through the proof of a divine creator and the veracity of the Book of Mormon with the assurance of someone who already has faith. At the same time, all of us need to put our beliefs in a context with what we already know, from the seasoned apologist to the newest investigator. While the interaction between faith and reason is more complex than Hafen indicates, faith and reason need to be interacting, not operating in isolation.
The test of spiritual feeling gets a lot of play in the teachings of the church, and appropriately so. The confirmation of truth by the Holy Ghost is the great miracle of Christianity, and Mormons particularly see it as the key way of overcoming the problems inherent in the test of reason. Of course, spiritual feelings are subjective and easy enough to explain away, and they are used to persuade others more often than appropriate (sudden marriage proposals come to mind). I also worry that we treat this gift too casually, that it has become utilitarian rather than miraculous.
The test of experience also has scriptural support, and faith-promoting experience anecdotes are the meat and potatoes of most testimony meetings. (I did this, this happened, that’s why I believe.) Like the test of reason, the level of belief one already has colors the degree to which the faith explains the experience. In addition, each of us have different expectations regarding how our faith ought to effect our experience: how safe, happy and fulfilled can our faith make us?
For me at least, I would add the test of conscience. Do the principles in which I am asked to believe seem right to me? Do they conform with my basic sense of right and wrong? Others might have other tests as well.
Hafen says we need all of these elements to have a testimony, and I generally agree. However, the balance is different for each of us, and it may even differ based on the principle in which we believe. In my general testimony of the restoration, most of my marbles are with spiritual feeling, while my testimony of the teachings of Christ is more experiential. As a result, these elements are useful when used to evaluate our own testimonies, not the faith of others: they are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. I wonder which elements specific church practices encourage, and which could use more attention or support.