My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res.]

So, today is Whitsunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, a holiday in honor of the Day of Pentecost. Pretty much exactly four years ago, I wrote something about the gifts demonstrated on that day, and about those–-decidedly less spectacular–-gifts which I like to believe (or just want to believe) I have. I’m somewhat proud of it; I think it is one of the more honest things I’ve ever written about myself. So I’m reposting it, with a few changes, here. (You might want to check out the comments on the original post, if you’re interested.) Whitsunday is a commemoration of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on Pentecost. Acts 2:2-4 (KJV): “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni. I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I have never seen an angel, discerned spirits, or spoken in tongues. With only a very few and very small exceptions, mine has not been a life graced, so far as I know (or so far as my own pride and sins allow me to recognize), with spiritual guidance, revelation, confirmation, or testimony.

Yet I know I have been given one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing describes it as a gift of wisdom, but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier: while to some it is given to know “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world,” it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.

I am, in short, a believer, not a knower. While I have never seen with my own eyes evidence of any of the aforementioned, more spectacular spiritual gifts, and while I am often critical of accounts of such, I do not fundamentally doubt any of them. I’ve tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it is residing somewhere…and when I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found God through Christ’s grace, through the Bible and the Book of Mormon, through service in my church, I can see no reason to dispute them. I believe them: I believe the words of my father, my wife, and so many teachers and neighbors and friends that I have been blessed with. While I don’t have within me any great, foundational conviction or sure knowledge that they are all right, it also doesn’t strike as at all plausible that they are all wrong.

What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. I believe in lots of things (like Santa Claus, for instance), as I tend to think it reasonable to not discount the possibility that truth and beauty and God’s power may dwell within practically all things. (Which makes me into a kind of panentheist, I know.) But I’m also a debater and a doubter. Is that contradictory? I don’t think so–I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, even if he could never articulate it with certainty (indeed, even if, as was recorded, the most he was ever sure of was that he “knew nothing”). Socrates spoke of his daimon; we might speak of a sort of holistic intuition, or to borrow from the German romantic tradition, of Verstehen. When describing King Solomon’s wisdom, the Old Testament record curiously speaks of not only his knowledge, but of his “largeness of heart”–which I take to mean not simply his sympathy for others’ claims, but his capacity to believe what it was they said.

The fact that I can get all philosophical about what it is that I suspect is my most fundamental spiritual condition shouldn’t be taken to mean that I consider it to be an excellent one, as I don’t. Frankly, I’d much rather have conviction. I’d like to be able to speak with certainty about this thing that I did and these words which I spoke and this miracle which I witnessed. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism always ends up becoming self-criticism. (“You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?”) It can be a very effective tool in polemical settings, but talking about deep yet inarticulate feelings by way of what you doubt you have any good reason not to believe (“I’ve never felt inclined to discount the very real possibility that the leaders of the Mormon church may well sometimes receive direct revelation from God,” etc., etc.) really kind of stinks as far as bearing testimony and witnessing ones faith goes. So I still pray for confirmation and revelation, though admittedly far less often than I used to. For now however, reflecting upon those I’ve known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and thinking about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am yet gifted to be bound by naive belief to the gospel of Christ.

In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to think about this. Paul Ricoeur described it (in The Symbolism of Evil [1967]) as a “second naivete,” one which calls us across the “desert of criticism” and makes possible a certain kind of belief or intuition of the reality of the sacred. To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics–but then hermeneutics was originally a theological (indeed a pneumatological) endeavor, concerned with the role of spirit, or spirits, in the text or symbol or world. While I realize that it is dangerous to wish for things–as you may get what you desire–I still wish that I could be one of those who see and feel, with great immediacy, as did the early apostles, the gifts of the spirit. But in any case, on this Whitsunday, I’m grateful that I at least believe that such things are there.


  1. Norbert says:

    As a lover of the liturgical calendar, I was happy to read this, and to think about my own spiritual gifts and what calls me across that desert of criticism. Thank you for sharing, as usual.

  2. ALso a public holiday here, no work tomorrow. Woohoo!

  3. This was wonderful, Russell. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, lovely post.

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    “… it is my lot, I think, to rather believe the words of those who have that knowledge, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.”

    Thanks for this, Russell. In Gospel Doctrine class a couple weeks back, I drew attention to this verse, asked how we square the mere gift of believing on others’ words with Moroni’s promise (i.e., with the claim that we should all individually be able to acquire “knowledge” of Mormonism’s truth claims), and suggested that maybe the gift of believing on others is all that some of us can ever hope for. In response, a classmember respectfully quoted an Apostle as saying that this particular gift of the spirit is only meant as an intermediate gift preceeding the big kahuna gift of “knowledge” for which we all should qualify.

    I think that explanation made sense to most within earshot. As for me, I’m not so sure. I tend to think as you do — that derivative testimony is all some of us can ever hope to possess. Certainly it would explain why some never acquire the type of testimony they seek, despite seemingly endless desire and effort to acquire it.

    On the other hand, I spent two years of my life asking my investigators not to take my word for it. Asking them to approach God directly and implore Him to give them the answers they sincerely sought, and which the scriptures seem to say they are entitled to. Does resignation to the truth that some are destined not to receive such answers undermine the missionary project I was once engaged in? It feels like it does.

    So in the end, I guess I’m torn.


  6. Sarah in Georgia says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  7. Norbert, MAC, Ann, Jana, Sarah, thank you for your kind words; I appreciate it very much.

    Aaron, I’m torn like you. As I said at the end of the post, I keep hoping for something more–for gifts of independent assurance, not something that I’ve derived from someone else’s words. But I also have to admit–having been prompted here by a friend’s comment–that I do not really pray with faith for such things, so maybe my “hope” for them has becoming perfuctory, not pleading, and that would demonstrate a lack of faith. It is usually at this point where I back away, sensing that I’m teetering on the edge of the same rabbit hole of self-questioning which I spent years in when I was younger. Does that mean I’m too cowardly or lazy to, in a sense, “finish” the missionary work I once committed myself to–that the prospect of contiunally seeking for something, as itself an offering of faith that I’ll someday be blessed with the gift or knowledge I need, is just too intimidating? I have to admit that may be true. (As you can see, my every belief is dogged by doubts!)

  8. Torn #3 says:

    My solace has been found in the Doctine and Covenants – “To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful” [D&C 46:13–14] – not that this made testimony meetings at zone conferences that much more comfortable. I remember once just standing and saying nothing. Unfortunately no one picked up on the my life = my testimony equation.

    As an adult convert, I can say that my sincere prayers were answered in the form of “Yes, you should join this church”, rather than any confirmation of the BOM or JST.

    Very thankful to Russell and Aaron for posting.

  9. I’m going to respond more when I get home and am no longer at work – but just a quick question: where in the scriptures does it state that just because one is “given to believe on [others’] words” does it mean that that person can never and will never have an independent manifestation of God to him/herself? Aren’t we encouraged to obtain all gifts, not just the ones we were given? Indeed, do not the Lectures on Faith (once considered the doctrine part of the doctrine and covenants, if you recall) state that every individual must gain a manifestation of God to him or herself, otherwise their testimony is a matter of mere tradition?

    Yes, I believe it does.

    It sounds like you’ve given up on knowing, and I believe that is dangerous. Well, maybe not dangerous. Just problematic if what you’re really after is the truth. Else how are you any different from one who was born on the Arabian peninsula and was raised reading the Quran, believing the words of your relatives? Or in the South, surrounded by Baptists? Or wherever… if you’re consigning yourself to trusting in fallible beings (no matter how many of them there are or how consistent their testimonies seem), then aren’t you settling for less than Truth?

    I’m engaging in a very direct manner because this is something I have thought about to a great extent, and have flirted with the conclusion you have come to, but ultimately found it to be …less effective.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I’ll try to write more when I get home.

  10. I admit at the outset that I have not completely read the post nor all of the comments. But to those that seem to question their testimony, I thought I would chime in.

    Sometimes I wonder if we allow doubt to overcome faith when we fail to adequately recognize the influence of the Holy Ghost in our lives. I wonder if we are so used to the still small voice that we don’t even realize that that is what we feel as we read the scriptures and as we pray and go throughout our lives. I wonder if we really have received a witness of truth from the Spirit but haven’t recognized it as such.

  11. Torn #3 says:

    Mark, I am not sure if your remarks were directed to scholarly Russel or inarticulate me, but here it goes.

    I, for one, do not discriminate between spiritual truth and empirical truth. The fact that my testimony does not include a spiritual confirmation (or gift per the OP), does not perforce relegate it to a matter of mere tradition. The empirical truth of the gospel is even bourn out in its limited application to my severely flawed life. This fact is as undeniable to me as any rudimentary law of science. No neighbor, no relative, no missionary could have conveyed this truth to me. As I also believe that God is truth, is not the recognition of this truth a manifestation of God as you cite? I comfortably say it is, with no “spiritual eyes” involved.

    Have I given up on a spiritual confirmation? Well, after 30 years I have to finally admit that indeed I have. Is this problematic? Well, no, unless you are referring to conflicts with the cultural norms of the LDS church. I happily drink from this mighty spring of truth, but also take sips elsewhere, and am not totally convinced that there is not a raging river somewhere over the horizon. I constantly challenge and test, and this does tend to put one at odds. I also see that our leaders are indeed very fallible beings as well as inspired men. This is why my God will always be an AWESOME God, no matter what the June Ensign says.

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