Elements of faith

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.

Comments

  1. Norbert – Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. Recently I gave a talk which forced me to think about the difference between testimony and conversion. Marion G. Romney, and more recently Dallin H. Oaks, have spoken specifically about these two distinct characteristics. The exercise helped me to understand the point at which I was truly converted, comparing it to when I gained a testimony. I discovered that while my testimony is continually evolving, my conversion happened over a relatively short span of time.

    The three elements that you (and Hafen) cite as necessary elements are all part of my religious experience. I think of some specific spirtual experiences that have solidified my faith – some of them relating to members of my family and some just for me – and I look to the cumulative collection of my life experience, rather than just specific experience about specific issues, that have built my faith. And finally I feel that reason is a significant part of my faith but realize that, for me at least, reason is sometimes confused with rationalization. But I don’t let that bother me.

    Thanks again for this post.

  2. Perry Shumway says:

    Your fourth element, the “test of conscious,” in which one seeks a visceral confirmation of gospel principles, describes to me the process of recalling things we knew in a previous life to be correct. In this respect, it’s difficult to separate it from the “test of spiritual feeling,” because the Holy Ghost in His capacity as testifier of truth seems to primarily confirm things to us by reminding us that we once knew them to be true.

    One of the claims we cling to most strongly is that the Church is founded on revelation, by which it is supposed that the prophet regularly receives revelation from on high, and benevolently condescends to impart it to us from time to time.

    My view is that the revelations received by the prophet and passed along to us are relatively few, and that the real meaning of the term “founded on revelation” is that individual members seek and receive personal revelations all the time. Many of these revelations are (or should be) in the form of the Holy Spirit bringing us to a recollection of beautiful things we once knew. Working to make the veil thinner is a good thing.

    Nice post, Norbert.

  3. nice post.
    the post may be clearer if you change “conscious” to “conscience”

  4. Do you mean “test of conscience”?

  5. Sam and E, thanks. It’s the kind of thing I circle in red on student papers.

  6. I have heard Richard Bushman bear his testimony of the restored Gospel on several occasions, and it has always struck me that it is always couched in terms of his experience with the Gospel and how it has consistently led to good things in his life, both for him and his family. I think the three (or four) elements of faith that you and Hafen have set forth are also interesting if you view them as alternative routes to gaining a testimony, rather than all of them being necessary to have a testimony, as Hafen says. In my own experience, I have been able to receive a testimony primarily through experience and reason, but with very little spiritual feeling. Furthermore, there are some parts of (what is commonly taught as) the Gospel that I cannot accept on the basis of conscience.

  7. The interplay is interesting, and testimonies vary in these areas in innumerable ways. But it seems the gospel provides testimony options in several areas. This is the “place of the back burner.”

    For example, the testimony of conscience might conflict with some specific teachings of the gospel, thus affecting the testimony of reason; but we can still be supported by the testimony of experience or spiritual feeling in this regard. similarly, few people feel the influence of the Holy Ghost all the time, and while we might be “left to ourselves” for a season, the other areas of testimony can be strengthened or relied upon in the absence of the spiritual aspect.

    In short, These different areas seem to act as safety nets for our testimonies.

  8. Norbert,

    Nice post. I’ve always been interested in what Bruce Hafen says on the topic of faith and belief, since reading an article he wrote called “The Will to Believe.” He talked about faith as the choice to see God’s hand in things which could be explained naturalistically. For instance, he mentions his young daughter praying to Heavenly Father to help her find some misplaced keys and being directed to find them.

    Looking at faith as a choice has been helpful to me, and, AHLDuke, I have heard Richard Bushman speak this way about faith as well. I think that faith and belief are separate things though, which Hafen does not always distinguish between.

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