By Boyd J. Petersen
Art by Galen Dara
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets
Even with my MTC-level French and greenie cluelessness, when my trainer turned to look at me during one of our first discussions, I understood perfectly well that it was my turn to share my testimony. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Only a few days in France and already the excitement of spending two years of my life as a missionary had worn thin. I had imagined living among cultured people, eating fine cheeses and foods with rich sauces, and discussing deep, philosophical issues with smart Europeans. Instead, I was living in an unsightly apartment in a seedy neighborhood; spending most of my time “talking” with immigrants who spoke French only marginally better than I did; and eating missionary-made casseroles of hamburger, tomato paste, and the French equivalent of Cheez-Whiz. This wasn’t at all what the missionary homecoming talks had described. I felt depressed, homesick, and stuck. I couldn’t face the stigma of returning home early from my mission, but I wasn’t sure how I could survive two years of this. How was I supposed to say I knew the Church was true when I felt so betrayed by it—not to mention abandoned by God. Instead, I pretended that I didn’t understand the cues my companion was giving me and remained silent.
It took a few weeks before I was ready to testify to anything. But as I acclimatized to missionary life, I found that the very act of saying that I knew the Church was true gave me a warm assurance that everything would be all right, that God was good, and that I was doing his will. I know that bearing my testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel didn’t do much for others—after all, I was in France where baptisms were as scarce as Skippy Peanut Butter, Jell-O, and Ford Mustangs—but bearing my testimony made me feel better and, I came to discover, it made me better. I was a better person and a better missionary because I testified.
Thirty years later, the words “I know the Church is true” are much more complicated than they were when I was a missionary. Each one of those words seems problematic in some way, with the exception, perhaps, of the verb “is.” (Unlike former-President Bill Clinton, I’ve never questioned the meaning of that word.) Education and life experiences have caused me to critically examine each of these words and have left me more questions than answers. The testimony expression used to be a simple declaration of faith for me, but it evolved into a philosophical exercise in doubt and perplexity. Only recently have I been able to speak those words again with renewed force and without reservation.
In “Little Gidding,” a poem titled after a 17th-century Anglican monastery, T.S. Eliot proposes that “When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning” we will see that “beginning” with new eyes, discovering what was “Not known, because not looked for.” Arriving there, we will “know the place for the first time.”
After spending much of my life wrestling with uncertainty, I feel that I have indeed arrived where I started and know it for the first time because I see it with new eyes.
The first word to become problematic in “I know the Church is true” was “Church.” When I was young, I went to church because the people there would talk to me about religion, something my parents, who were inactive and drank coffee, never felt comfortable doing. Sitting there alone in Sunday School, even though I was coming to love the people in the ward, I grew to suspect that the lessons about “eternal families” and the Word of Wisdom were aimed at me and my family. I also saw first-hand how Church members could be hypocritical, saying one thing and secretly doing another. The very people serving in leadership callings in my ward and teaching me in Primary, Sunday School, and priesthood meetings sometimes revealed all-too-human foibles.
As I grew into adolescence, I began to see that most Church members failed to stand up for the ideals that I believed the scriptures espoused. They seemed slow to renounce war or bigotry. I saw petty feuds develop between some ward members and gossip spread among others. I soon became one of those Mormons Eugene England once described as drawing a distinction between the “Church” and the “gospel.” I saw the gospel as being “true, even perfect,” while regarding the Church as a “human instrument, history-bound, and therefore understandably imperfect—something to be endured for the sake of the gospel.”1 So when I said “I know the Church is true,” what I meant in my head was “I know the gospel is true.”
During my undergraduate years at BYU, I became interested in Mormon history and theology. I took as many religion classes as I could fit into my schedule—many more than were required. I also began to read Sunstone and Dialogue, and I became part of an active Mormon manuscript-photocopying-and-trading underground. I began to learn that Church history and theology were much more complicated than many of my religion classes were purporting. I learned, for example, that there are multiple accounts of the First Vision and that Mormon beliefs about the nature of God shifted significantly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I also read Juanita Brooks’ account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, finding out along the way that our history was not always as heroic as I had been led to believe.
All these revelations put me in a tight spot when testimony meeting came around. What would I say when I testified of the Church’s truthfulness? Precisely which Church would I mean: the Church of the past or the present? And which parts of it? The organization itself? Priesthood authority? And which doctrines or practices would I allow into my increasingly complicated definition?
Then, A graduate seminar on the idea of the “subject” in Western thought forced me to call into question the meaning of “I.” As we examined the idea of the self from literary, psychological, philosophical, and historical perspectives, I realized that this entity I knew as “me”—as the core of myself—was actually a socially-constructed character. This realization was solidified for me during my struggles with depression. I knew that anti-depressants could alter my moods and personality significantly. How much of what I felt was caused by the chemicals in my brain and how much was the production of a deeply centered soul? I began to question the ability of any person to know him- or herself in any fundamental way. When I said “I know the Church is true,” what “I” was I talking about?
It was reading Nietzsche during my PhD course work that caused me to altogether reconsider the concept of “knowing.” In his essay “Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense” Nietzsche notes that our understanding of everything relies on a series of metaphorical relationships. Our eyes detect the patterns of light reflected by an object, then the brain transforms that pattern into an idea or concept, then a word is attached to it. None of these points of reference—the pattern of light, the idea, the word—capture the true nature of reality. In other words, we go through life generalizing about the essence of the objects, beings, and other phenomena we encounter. By the time I was done with Nietzsche, I was confident that I “knew” absolutely nothing. So testimony meeting became a huge dilemma. How could I say “I know the Church is true” when I knew that I couldn’t know anything? I certainly didn’t think my ward would understand if I added “but of course, this is a lie” to the end of my testimony.
What could I possibly mean if I said the Church (whatever that is) is “true”? Could I mean that it has a monopoly on some kind of knowledge? (Which is impossible if knowing itself is impossible.) Could I mean that the Church is in some sense an expression of an ultimate reality. (Which is likewise impossible if we cannot really know anything.) Could I mean that the Church is more efficacious in making people better than are other institutions? (But how could we know that?) Does it provide a better path to understanding? (If so, how?) I felt stuck.
Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the Church. I was still an active, practicing Mormon. I still believed the Church was important or special in some way. I just couldn’t say “I know the Church is true.”
I may have been filled with doubt, but I came to discover that doubt is actually faith’s partner. It was, after all, doubt that led Joseph Smith to the woods to pray. And Paul defines faith as an “assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen” (11:1) counting on us to understand that assurance of something hoped for is not really assurance, and conviction of something unseen is not really a conviction. (Nietzsche would be proud!) Alma teaches a similar paradox: “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things” but “if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Paul and Alma suggest that faith is a sort of intermediary between two poles, stretching the human heart to bridge the imagined with reality. Furthermore, the Lord’s admonition to Oliver Cowdery in the Doctrine and Covenants to “doubt not, fear not” must be read in the revelation’s larger context of comfort and assurance. Both doubt and fear are natural and inevitable. We must remember Christ’s comforting and gentle words in the same verse to “look unto [him] in every thought,” inspiring us to move beyond doubt and fear toward faith (D&C 6:36). But apparently, religious life does not demand “knowing.”
There is, however, another dimension of faith: the relational. The most basic meaning for the Latin word fides (and its etymological Greek cognate pistis) from which we get the English word faith is “to trust.” The concept of trust always involves something or someone we can put our trust in. As James Fowler notes “faith is always relational: there is always another in faith. ‘I trust in and am loyal to. . .’” We do not enter into faith relationships because we “ought to” or out of any sense of compulsion, we do it because “the other to which we commit has, for us, an intrinsic excellence or worth and because it promises to confer value on us. We value that which seems of transcendent worth and in relation to which our lives have worth.” In other words, we invest our faith in an Other because that investment gives our lives joy and meaning.2 Faith mediates my relationship with God just as fidelity (the words come from the same root) does my relationship with my wife.
With this realization, I came to understand that if I employed the same qualifications I was using to think about my testimony of the Church to think about my relationship with my wife, our relationship would fizzle. In fact, I would have no relationships at all. I had never analyzed what it meant when I told my wife that I loved her. I never thought to put scare quotes around or call into question the individual words “I,” “love,” or “you.” Surely there’s as much at stake in that expression, and surely it’s every bit as problematic. What does it mean to “love”? Who is this “I”? And whoever it is, can it really say it knows my wife in any ultimate sense? I had to admit that I didn’t really know who she is any more than I know who I am. In fact, part of what I love about her is the very mystery of her self—the fact that, even after almost thirty years of marriage, I cannot completely predict what she will do or say. I am quite frequently awestruck by the many dimensions of Zina that I continue to discover.
Like the Church, my wife has changed over the years. She is not the same woman I married, and, frankly, I would be bored and unfulfilled if she were. I certainly don’t feel that she deceived me because I didn’t know everything about her when I married her, and I have never felt betrayed when I discovered more about her. Some of the things I have discovered might have been apparent had I known to look, other things she may have purposefully kept from me, and still others she may not have even been aware of yet herself. Yet it has never bothered me that my understanding of her continues to evolve. So should I feel betrayed when I discover new things about the Church or start to understand how it has evolved? I have to admit that I love much of the nineteenth-century theology, but I would never be able to endure nineteenth-century Mormonism in a twenty-first century world.
There have been times when, like the Church, Zina has disappointed or even hurt me. But if I’m honest, I must admit that there have been even more times I have disappointed or hurt her. I know my commitment to the Church—to fulfill my callings and live righteously—has also been less than perfect. Nevertheless, my love for my wife—whatever “I” am, whatever “love” is, whoever “my wife” is—not only remains but deepens over time. In fact, the very trials of our relationship over the past almost-thirty years have, I believe, deepened and purified that love.
In “Little Gidding,” Eliot remarks on love as the chief tormenter of humanity:
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
But he also notes that love is likewise humanity’s only redemption. Like fire, love has a dual nature: it both destroys and purifies. “The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.” We must choose whether love will purify or destroy us. “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.”
I use the comparison between my relationship with the Church and my relationship with my wife both cautiously and purposely, for I have come to believe the two are similar types of relationships. In both cases, the relationships are created out of affection, established by covenants, nourished by service, preserved by fidelity, renewed by forgiveness, and sustained by tolerance and love. I believe I have developed into a better person not simply because of the joy both relationships have engendered but also because of the pain of self-revelation and repentance they have forced me to confront. The “pyre” of love in both relationships has begun to purify me by slowly consuming my sins. Because of my membership in the Church and my marriage to my wife, I am a better person than I would have been otherwise. Both have nurtured me and blessed me in ways I don’t fully comprehend.
So today, when I say “I know the Church is true” I mean a great many things. Some I’m fully aware of, and many more I leave to mystery. I know the Church is true in the same way Gene England did. Pragmatically, it forces me to confront, serve, and love the “other.” Gene believed that the Church was as “true” as the gospel “because it is concrete, not theoretical; in all its contradictions and problems, it is at least as productive of good as is the gospel.”3 It forces us to get “real” with our charity. It’s not the place where love automatically exists, but the place where we learn to love each other despite disagreements, fights, tears, and pain. The Church is not a place for people who are already saved; it is for people who are committed to trying. The Church is, as England maintained, a “school of love.” It forces us to be kind to those unlike us and to engage charitably with people who disagree with us. In a world where it is possible to interact exclusively with people who think exactly like we do—where we get our news from sources we already agree with, where our Facebook friends can be sequestered into groups we share our status updates with and those we don’t, where we can socialize with people of similar interests throughout the world and never talk to our next-door neighbor—it’s really worthwhile to be forced to work with and love people who are radically different from us. With its congregations filled by people living within geographic boundaries rather than people who choose their congregation, this church remains one of the last places where we simply cannot avoid difference. It’s a world where I have come to love people who are fans of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but it’s also a world where they have to come to love a Jon Stewart-watching progressive like me. It’s a world where, when my atheist friend needed to move a load of dirt, his elder’s quorum helped him get the job done in minutes. And as I love and interact with these people I disagree with, I find my own beliefs challenged, reshaped, and moderated, helping me to engage more charitably with others in the national and world community. As the Church community moves us toward cooperation and love for each other despite our differences, we often find our differences to be smaller and less of an obstacle to creating even larger communities.
I have many friends who are “spiritual but not religious”—all wonderful people with seeking souls and expansive beliefs. And I understand their frustrations with organized religion. But I often sense in them a misunderstanding of what religion does. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word religio, the same root as our word “ligament.” It is about “binding together”—in this case binding together a community of people committed to God. It’s about “getting our living together,” as Thoreau puts it. And Mormonism in particular is a system of belief that depends on community. Our theology says we are saved as a community—in fact, at one point Christ rejects us unless we are a community, for “If ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses shows us that Enoch can glimpse God and the cosmos alone, but he can only be saved with the rest of his city. Central to Mormonism are the ideas of uniting families in temple-sealings, building Zion on earth, and ultimately entering a community of gods. Religion is a way of dedicating ourselves to helping each other (imperfectly as we may) and consecrating—that is, making sacred—our lives. I don’t believe you can make your life sacred alone; you need a community—not a community of people who are just like you, but a community of people who come to work together and love each other, despite their differences, out of a shared devotion to charity, service, and God.
I also love the unique theology of Mormonism—the beliefs other Christian denominations consider heresies: that humans are pre-mortal and post-mortal beings, co-eternal with God, born innocent of Adam’s sin, capable of limitless potential. I love the teaching that the Godhead is composed of separate beings, and that bodies—human and divine—are eternal and holy. I believe these principles to be true not because I have any “proof”—for what proof could there be that couldn’t be called into question? Instead, I believe these concepts to be true because they “taste good,” as Joseph Smith put it in the King Follett Discourse. “You say honey is sweet and so do I,” he said. “I can also taste the spirit of eternal life. I know it is good; and when I tell you of these things which were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet and I rejoice more and more.”4 Obviously taste is a rather ill-defined and subjective method for discovering truth. Different people have different tastes. But Joseph insisted these doctrines would taste good in the mouths of Christ’s followers, and I find myself saying “amen” to that discourse. For me, Mormonism just “tastes” good.
I especially love the “taste” of LDS perspectives on the Atonement: that Christ effected the possibility of both immortality and eternal life, resurrection and exaltation, on the cross and in Gethsemane; that, by suffering human “infirmities,” temptations, and pains Christ learned how to “succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12); and that the immensity of the Atonement is gigantic—much greater than we can imagine—bringing together in one “all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:13). Most of all, I love that the humanity of Christ is as important to Mormons as his divinity—that his mortality gives him the compassion to save and that his divinity lifts our humanity from the degradations of mortality.
All of these intriguing theological concepts are made possible by the unique Mormon canon. The language of Mormon scripture has been written in my heart; it has become part of the way I think and feel. It is my language of faith. Whatever process Joseph Smith used to give these scriptures life, no matter how flawed an individual he might have been, he had an expansive mind and a heart tuned to the endless potential of humanity.
I have witnessed power in the religious rites of many traditions: the ritualized call-and-response sermons of Protestant worship, the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper of high church liturgy set within the architectural splendor of a gothic cathedral and the dappled lighting of stained-glass windows, the sincere and humble submission of Muslims at prayer, and gospel choirs bearing enthusiastic witness of God’s bountiful grace. After I understood and acclimatized myself to these other ways of worship, I came to believe that God fully honors these efforts with his spirit and attends to these prayers. Nevertheless, I believe that the rituals unique to Mormonism—especially temple work and sealings—are uniquely entrusted to our faith at this time. And I have felt priesthood—some kind of divine power—flow through me as I’ve given blessings and baptized and confirmed and ordained my children. It is a unique and beautiful power; holy and efficacious.
I know the Church is true! After many years of struggling with those words, I feel like the Prodigal Son returning home. And like the Prodigal Son, I am not the same person I was when I departed; I have learned, I have grown, and I have changed. When I speak those words today, I mean something different than I did when I was a nineteen-year-old missionary. But the words have more meaning, not less. They have been put through the fire of my wrestles with faith and have been purified.
Why, one may ask, would I say “I know the Church is true,” rather than saying what I really mean—what I have said here? One reason may be that I don’t want to pound my ward members into a coma by launching into a theological treatise about faith, Nietzsche, William Jamesian pragmatism, and James Fowler’s developmental theories of faith. Even with a slice of T.S. Eliot thrown in for aesthetic effect, I doubt many of my neighbors think about these things the same way I do—and most of them probably don’t care to. I’m not suggesting they don’t go through a similar process of arriving where they began and seeing it for the first time. Life, with or without a humanities graduate program, can throw some pretty heavy stuff at you— a child turning from the faith, a loved one dying in a tragic accident, the myriad ways we all experience loss and longing, unfulfilled goals, depression, and mid-life angst—that will necessarily shift the ways we think about our faith. It’s just that not everyone does it alone in their heads like I did.
I believe, however, that the main reason I bear my testimony in the simple way I do is that I want to take part in a peculiar Mormon speech act. As James Faulconer has argued, a testimony is a performative—even liturgical—act. A declarative statement of belief, Faulconer reasoned, can be words
. . . said under the right conditions [whose] importance is not as a description of my belief . . . . It is important because its utterance is part of my being in a particular relationship with God and others of the faith. To utter one of these basic beliefs is to take part with others in witness and worship. It is to be an agent in an event whose meaning is only found in the event as a whole rather than its individual parts. It is to be joined to God in his work with the community of others who make the same utterances.5
A testimony is, in this sense, a ritual in which we declare our commitment to the faith in one speech act. It is a witness, not of what we know, but of our allegiance to the faith community.
Ultimately, then, when I say that I know the Church is true, I mean that I am committing myself to this Church much as I did to my wife when we were first married, and as I do when I repeat the magic words “I love you” as a vow of allegiance. I am saying that, based on the elusive assurance of life experiences and the inner desires of my heart, based on love and devotion, I am placing my hopes with the LDS community. I am confident that, as in my relationship with my wife, my relationship with the Church will evolve, but I am devoted to continuing this journey together. This kind of “knowing” is very different from the kind I had as a missionary, yet the words are the same. In bearing testimony, I am assured that, as Eliot quotes from Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.” And in that moment of communal commitment, the purifying force of life’s tribulations unite with God’s exquisite mercy as “the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.” My testimony is a commitment of the heart, a promise made to a God I can only glimpse and to a community with whom I share my yearnings for immortality and eternal life.
1. Eugene England, Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986), 2.
2. James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995), 16, 18.
3. England, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel, 4.
4. Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, p. 7
5. James Faulconer, remarks on Catholic and Orthodox Christianity at the inaugural conference of the Mormon chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, University of Southern California, 12 June 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PSxaN-pSok (accessed 8 May 2013).
One of the best things I’ve ever read! Thankyou so much.
–someone preparing for a mission
Amazing. Having served a mission in France over a decade ago, being an aspiring philosopher, this certainly resonates with me. Except I have yet to return to a place where I feel like I can utter the words, “I know the Church is true.” But you give me hope that I will make it there, someday. Thanks.
Excellent! Awesome perspective.
Thank you for this brilliant essay! Your comparison to saying “I love you” to a spouse is really helpful to me. It makes me feel motivated to bear testimony again now that I can think of it in a different way.
This resonates with me just as Bro. England’s essays did years ago. So profound and beautiful!
Thank you for sharing your journey. This touched me deeply.
As a far outsider I can “bear testimony” that you will not find a better entrée into the Mormon intellect than this essay.
thank you so much. your words have given me so much to ponder and try to apply to my faith journey, and hopefully share with others who are struggling…
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