In my last installment I said that I would discuss some of the ways that fundamentalist thinking can unknowingly create stumbling blocks to our testimony. Before I get to that, however, I need to point out some important considerations about those who might be vulnerable to testimony damage.
It is significant that we ask: Who are those members who could potentially fall away because of hostile “intellectual” arguments? The answer is: all of us. We are told that in the last days “the very elect” (Matt. 24:24)—even the “elect according to the covenant” (JST Matt. 1:24)—could be deceived by “false Christs” and “false prophets.”
When we think of false Christs and false prophets we may envision lunatics who claim to be Jesus or perhaps radical leaders who would try to draw us into a faith of their own making. A false Christ or false prophet, however, would refer to anyone (religious or secular) who falsely claims the power and/or knowledge that leads to ultimate happiness and answers man’s greatest questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?
Basically, any belief system that attempts to lead us down a path of thinking or behavior that draws us away from returning to Heavenly Father would count as a false Christ or false prophet. It is important therefore to note that we are told that such false teachings would even deceive the “very elect” and even those who made “covenants.”
History relates the tragic stories of other “elect” who lost their way—including one third of our pre-mortal brothers and sisters, Cain, Laman and Lemuel, Judas, the Book of Mormon Witnesses (although two returned), Sidney Rigdon (who, with Joseph, saw the Savior), and others. It should become apparent that all of us need to be on guard. Having a testimony now, or having had spiritual experiences in the past, doesn’t guarantee safety.
According to a 2001 informal poll of over 400 former members of the Church,[i] nearly two-thirds of the respondents had been active church members for at least 20 years, 58% had been married in the temple, and 59% had served missions. Former-members, of whom I am aware, include Relief Society Presidents, as well as Elder’s Quorum presidents, Bishops, and even a Mission President. A large percentage of former members undoubtedly had real testimonies and were active in their wards.
In the dream given to Lehi and Nephi they saw that many who had already “commenced” on the path to the tree of life “did lose their way” because of the mists of darkness (1 Ne. 8:23). An iron rod ran alongside the path to the tree and those who grabbed on to it were able to stay on the path even when blinded by the dark mists. Nephi saw that this iron rod represented the word of God (1 Ne. 11:25).
Those who stayed on the path, held on to the rod, and finally made it to the tree (the “love of God” [11:25]) and tasted of its fruit were not completely safe, however. Lehi saw that some of those who tasted the fruit did “cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed” (8:25). Why were they ashamed? They were scoffed at by those in the great and spacious building on the other side of the river (11:26-28). Nephi saw that his building represented “the world and the wisdom thereof” as well as the “pride of the world” (11: 35-36).
Some of the people who had traversed the long path, held on to the word of God, managed to stay on the path in spite of the mists of darkness, and finally tasted the fruit of God’s everlasting love, still lost focus of the power of goodness of God’s love (perhaps even looked to see if there was something better [“cast their eyes about”]) because of the “wisdom” of the world.
I’ve seen this happen myself. Members who have real testimonies, who are active in the Church, who not only hold leadership callings, but devote their times and talents to the Lord, who pray, pay tithing, hold family evenings, and live the commandments—I’ve seen them lose focus on their spiritual experiences because they discover something (or several things) that contradict their assumptions of non-doctrinal issues (although they may not realize that their concerns typically center on non-doctrinal issues).
Unless they recognize that their paradigms about those issues are either faulty, naïve, or incomplete, they may suddenly doubt their spiritual experiences and question (and often jettison) any witnesses they had previously received from the Holy Spirit.
The wisdom and pride of the critics in the world tells us that there is no such thing as spiritual experiences—that all such feelings are nothing more than emotions driven by confirmation bias (this will be discussed in greater detail in later installments). Critics argue that not only are such sources unreliable but they give contradictory answers to different people throughout the world (another topic to be addressed later). Only science, reason, and intellect, they tell us, are valuable in determining truth.
While I’m a big fan of truth as acquired from science and I believe that there are many scientific evidences that support belief, it is not possible to know, or fully deny, the existence of God through scientific means alone.
The best two medicines with which we can inoculate our testimonies are: A) The recognition that “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it” (D&C 93:30). In other words spiritual things are spiritually discerned. We can never know if God exists, that Jesus is the Christ, or that Joseph Smith beheld them both in his First Vision without tapping into the spiritual realm; and B) Many of our paradigms and assumptions about the intellectual aspects involving the scriptures, prophecy, and the nature of prophets, are often sophomoric. As Paul said: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corin. 13:11).
As we will discuss next time, it’s not childish to have different opinions on matters of non-doctrinal issues, but it is potentially dangerous to one’s testimony to not to recognize that there are differing opinions and approaches to many LDS topics, or to ascribe to those opinions the weight of doctrine.