Open-ended, Ongoing

(Find below a handful of loose notes from a friend of mine, David Gore, on testimony. Put them to work as you’re interested and able.)

It makes more sense to me to think about a testimony as an open-ended set of possibilities and relationships rather than a closed system of agreed-to propositions.

Another thing  we need to emphasize in testimony discourse is the way it can be alive to different degrees at different stages of our life, the fact that a testimony is more a project of development over the human lifespan than a single event or experience at any given moment. Sometimes we are bereft of God, other times things move along smoothly and we’re lighthearted and grateful for the ride.

No one of us is more than a couple of decisions here or there from losing our faith and falling away. The opposite seems to have proven to be the case in my life, too. A small decision here or there, to take up and read or to kneel down and pray, yields dividends which I never anticipate and which I don’t always have the good sense to appreciate.

It is, as always, the little things coupled with wrestling with the strange reality and circumstances of mortality that join to build understanding. When we turn to Him, we will find Him, but we may not find Him where or how we think He should be found.

Also, it’s important to remember that historical knowledge is similar, I think, to faith-knowledge with respect to the fact that it is rooted in what we desire as much as what we can accept and what we find plausible and what we experience and how we explain it.

What we need is not necessarily more knowledge or more faith, but sometimes just a new take on what it is we know or what it is we think we can explain with respect to what happened in the past and what it means for us in the present that we are making for ourselves with those around us.

A new take is not necessarily easier to invent than more knowledge or more faith, but I think it might take some of the pressure and anxiety away that many feel when confronted with the stark choice of: should I leave the church because I no longer believe there were Nephites? or because Joseph Smith had more wives than I thought he did?

I get it, I really do, that a cold shiver of metaphysical dread can fill us with despair and anxiety, but what I don’t get is why it means we should unravel all the stories we have a part in and that have a part in us.

That seems, at once, both the easier and more difficult way to go. Easier because it means we’re free of allegiance to the stories and the very high costs of that allegiance, but more difficult because it means we’re now without all the stories do for us and can mean to us.


  1. This is great. Thanks.

  2. “historical knowledge is similar, I think, to faith-knowledge with respect to the fact that it is rooted in what we desire as much as what we can accept and what we find plausible and what we experience and how we explain it.”

    Yes. The similarities may end there, but that is a significant point.

  3. If it were any other subject on any other forum this would be laughed out of the room. The whole authority and (restored gospel truth) hinges of the story of a man. It is also un reasonable if the story doesn’t add up you’ve got to believe the church anyway because that is what we do. We fall back and have nothing concrete to hold what is the point? Help me out here.

  4. For many LDS, the primary reason that they view church teachings as “all or nothing” is because church leaders have taught – and continue to teach – just that. Either we support everything Joseph did or he was a fraud. Either the BOM is historically accurate or it is a lie. We hear that all the time.

    I wish our gospel were otherwise, but I can’t say that I’m surprised to see members reject much of the good in the church when they conclude that some piece of our teaching is false. It’s especially hard when wards and families use the “all or nothing” falacy to force members into embracing things they cannot – e.g., polygamy, racial priesthood/temple exclusion, eternal gender roles, etc. And it’s especially ironic that when former members try to hold to the stories and experiences they grew up with – when they continue to claim they are “mormon” in an important sense even though not members of the church – very often members of the church will draw the line of exclusion and say “oh no, you’re no longer mormon if you don’t sustain it all.”

  5. Jiminpanama, if that’s the hill you’re going to die on, let me ask you this: what concrete evidence do you have in the life or mission or miracles or resurrection or teachings of Jesus Christ? None of that makes sense, and whatever it hinges on, it’s not even story by the man himself. So what’s the point of fretting about the restored gospel truth when the original gospel truth has no support? Don’t play games.

  6. Ardis, I’m not defending Jiminpanama (though he has a cooler name than me), but it is possible to believe on teachings of Christ (or Joseph) because they bear good fruit without accepting the factual stories surrounding those teachings.

    For example, Christ taught that we should not look on a woman to lust and that it is appropriate to do good works on the sabbath. One can accept those teachings by experiencing their truthfulness even if one does not accept that Christ actually healed the blind or saved a woman from stoning. Joseph taught that power should be handled on principles of righteousness, patience, love unfeigned, etc. One can accept those teachings by experiencing their truthfulness even if one does not accept that Joseph was given priesthood keys from angels.

  7. Ardis and Steve thanks for the dialog. One of the blessings about the restored church is it is relatively young and can be fact checked. The old gospel cannot. I am calm but I am not playing games here. The hill I have to die on is “was he a prophet it a fraud”. It is shady to
    Me that the church has changed stories and covered up a lot of the prophets life. Also the text is in serious question. The LDS was the best deal out there if it is true. If not I can worship down the road for 10% less. (Kidding)

  8. Meant to say was he a prophet or a fraud

  9. I do expect foibles of Joseph Smith, and a reasonable amount of trouble is expected especially living under the historic microscope. It really isn’t all or nothing for me, but some of the reported history from the church has to be what it said it was. So much appears to be unraveling. From the vision accounts to the stones and revelations. And scriptures. I am having trouble and I have no qualms about honesty here.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Dave K, while I think the Church does emphasize that there’s a connection between many claims and Joseph as a prophet, I don’t think they ever go as far as you present it. However it is a common misunderstanding by many members. For instance I don’t think the Church ever put up the false dichotomy of the Book of Mormon is historically accurate or it is all a lie. The book itself certainly makes the opposite claim denying anything akin to inerrancy let alone historical inerrancy. Likewise I don’t think the Church has ever portrayed Joseph as infallible although I’d agree that it’d be helpful to emphasize that point more.

    This talk by Elder Faust addresses this point rather well.

    While Joseph sought perfection, he did not claim perfection. If he were intending to fabricate a great falsehood or wanted to perpetrate a fraud or practice deceit, would he have been so truthful about his own humanness? His complete candor in admitting human frailties and in declaring the loving discipline of God offers powerful proof of his honesty and probity. His statements stand on more solid footing because they were declarations against human nature and admissions against self-interest.
    There should be no exaggerated emphasis on the fallibility or mortal failings of Joseph Smith. They were only things that are a part of any human being. He and his work enjoyed the benediction of Deity. On a special occasion, the Lord said to him, “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, I am well pleased with your offering and acknowledgments, which you have made; for unto this end have I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth.” (D&C 124:1.)

  11. Clark, I’ll paste one quote below from President Hinckley about the church being either true or a fraud. There are many others. Whether intentional or not, the effect of such statements is that members are pressured to accept church teachings or reject the whole. It happened with polygamy (and the rejection of polygamy). It happened with the priesthood ban. It is currently happening with gay marriage.

    To be clear, I’m talking about teachings, not personal righteousness. The church (reluctantly) can admit that Joseph Sr. struggled with alcohol, Joseph Jr. had a temper, and other personal failings. Heck, Joseph Jr. is chastized repeatedly in the D/C for personal failings.

    But when it comes to actual teachings, there has not been any acknowledgement that leaders ever get things wrong. The law of sarah is still canonized. The priesthood ban has not been disavowed (though its underpinnings have). And you can’t go two conference addresses without hearing the refrain that God does not permit our leaders agency to lead the church astray.

    “Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”
    President Hinckley, Loyalty, 2003,

  12. What happened to the most correct book on earth statements. Not only is that appear to be false, it does not contain the fullness of the gospel, nor does it appear that anything in the book is historically accurate. It does have some good positive scriptural passages, but I can give a good talk as well as the next guy. President Hinkleys comments echo Joseph Fielding Smith. The honest approach the church is trying to make should have full disclosure and let the chips fall where they may. The truth is that important.

  13. Clark Goble says:

    Dave K, that seems a different issue though. I agree that they way people make inferences from such statements can set up a false dichotomy but what Pres. Hinkley is saying simply isn’t what you are claiming. The Church is either true or it isn’t but being true in no way logically implies inerrancy.

    Now the pedagogy of how better to say all this probably is important. I’ll fully confess I’m not sure of a better way that doesn’t create far more misinterpretations.

  14. Jim, take a breather.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    Jim In Panama, I’m not sure on what basis we can claim that nothing “in the book is historically accurate.” I know many people think the book is fiction, but the evidence for that is still rather unpersuasive to me. (And yes, I know most of the arguments) The context of “most correct book” is of course it’s theological teachings and not historical events. However I do think that’s true and do think it contains the fulness of the gospel. I think we have to distinguish between what we mean by the fulness of the gospel versus what one might call complete theology – I think we have the former but not the later. We should also note that of course much (most?) of the Book of Mormon remains untranslated.

    Now I personally favor transparency for the Church and am glad the Church has swiftly moved in that direction of late. I’m eager for the day, for instance, that the Church publishes a critical text of the Egyptian papyri, Book of Abraham and Kirtland Egyptian papers all with full color photographs. That said though there is a rather key area that we don’t all agree with what the truth is. So critics and faithful members have very different views here.

  16. Nathaniel James says:

    jiminpanama, the Book of Mormon is the most correct book because it does contain the fullness of the Gospel. The fullness of the Gospel is defined in 2 Nephi 31-32, 3 Nephi 11, and 3 Nephi 27. It defines the Gospel/Doctrine of Christ as being faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. In my opinion these principles are incredibly important and true, and so the Book of Mormon is a pearl of great price regardless of its historicity. The book itself on its title page and repeatedly throughout says that it isn’t perfect or complete. The confusion comes in when Mormons confuse the “fullness of the Gospel” with the “fullness of true doctrines.” They’re not the same things.

  17. Clark, take a look at the full context in which President Hinckley made that statement. In his Loyalty talk, he discussed a political issue on which the church had taken a position – the repeal of prohibition in 1933 – in which many (most?) church members voted differently. He then thanked church members who were loyal and aligned themselves with the church’s political position. And in his next breath he said “either the Church is true, or it is a fraud.”

    I can’t read this any other way than that President Hinckley believed members could not both (i) believe the church is “true” and (ii) vote differently from the church on a political issue. To vote in favor of repeal was to conclude that the church was a fraud. And if that’s the feeling on a political issue such as prohibition, how much more is it for doctrinal issues such as the priesthood ban?

  18. Thanks

  19. Clark Goble says:

    Dave, I’m not sure I agree with that reading. That said, I do think that loyalty does entail helping the Church when asked. So I think there are two separate issues: loyalty and inerrancy. If the Church is really God’s church we should be loyal to it. That simply doesn’t mean the Church won’t make mistakes. I think sustaining the prophet means accepting his leadership in these cases even if we may disagree with the stance. (I also think with prohibition that the issue is usually framed with a false dichotomy – but that’s not relevant here)

    One huge problem I have with a lot of discussions is the conflating of loyalty with truth whereas to me they simply aren’t the same thing. (Interestingly I’ve been having that very debate on a different blog the past few weeks)

  20. There are a lot of Mormons who live with some version of “one and only”, “in or out”, “no middle ground”, “all or nothing”. My opinion is that there are real differences among our current and recent past Church leaders on this point, and therefore real differences in statements made, both the literal meaning and the intended (and perhaps unintended) implications.
    If I were living within the “all or nothing” paradigm, the OP would be difficult to read or make no sense. Since I am not, the OP makes good sense, although a little limiting in that it does not seem open to the open-ended possibility that testimony may lead one out (for awhile?) as well as in or on. In other words, the use or idea of “falling away” is somewhat inconsistent with an open-ended ongoing view of testimony.

  21. Clark, I think we’re reaching the end of this line of discussion. I’m with you that loyalty and truth are not the same. My point was that President Hinckely – and quite often other church leaders – choose to conflate them. That’s precisely what he does in his talk.

    And unfortunately, for both loyalty and truth, the idea is frequently pushed that there can be no middle ground. There’s no room for someone to be loyal to the church by fulfilling their calling, attending the temple, doing hometeaching, and – yet – also actively supporting civil SSM. There’s no middle ground for someone to accept the church’s truth claims as to priesthood, BOM, and temple ordinances, and – yet – disbelieve that polygamy was divinely instituted.

  22. Dave K.: “no room for . . . no middle ground for . . .”. That’s just not true. If you said “in some people’s minds, in some leader’s minds, in some places at some times, there is no room, no middle ground” then I’d agree. But most of my life, most of the time, with most Church leaders in my personal experience, the very room and middle ground you dismiss has been readily available.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Dave I’ll drop out of the discussion since I’m not sure what else to say. I recognize people read these comments the way you are. I earnestly don’t understand why they see it this way. It just seems to be setting up a false dichotomy from my perspective.

  24. MikeInWeHo says:

    “So what’s the point of fretting about the restored gospel truth when the original gospel truth has no support?”

    Ardis, you are exactly right. This realization (That it’s all myth, from Genesis to the Koran to the BoM) is what led me down a path toward universalism. It is the only way I can reconcile my personal spiritual experiences with the knowledge I have received. It has been a wonderful journey, and I am forever grateful for those missionaries that I met in high school. I believe God was working through them.

  25. Hi Jiminpanama: I hope my notes add up to more than <> That certainly not a claim I back. I have in mind, in using the word stories something more like relationships. I do think relationships are concrete. In my experience, my relationship with God and with other Mormons and with Mormon texts has been an enriching one. That’s not to say that I don’t struggle over parts of the story not adding up. In fact, I often laugh out loud at the thought myself or wonder what if it isn’t? Still, I can also see and wish to suggest the possibility that it adds up to, in my case, understanding. I understand myself through the lens of Mormonism; and I understand many of my relationships using that lens; and I think the lens helps me see farther and more clearly than I otherwise could. Perhaps that’s laughable, too, but I’m comforted by the fact that the comic frame tilts the balance toward the Lord.

  26. ^It’s supposed to read: add up to more than – if the stories don’t add up, believe the church anyway. That’s certainly not a claim I back . . .

  27. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    Thank you for your notes and perspectives on testimony David Gore.

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