I have wondered if I have a testimony for as long, I think, as I have been aware of how my fellow Saints around me use the word. I am, for better or worse, an intellectual—and moreover, a doubting and debating one. Statements of all sorts regularly strike me as dubious, and demand further explanation. The statements I’d heard in sacrament meeting talks and testimonies since I was a little child—“I know the church is true” and the like—were no exception; what is it, I wondered, which entails such knowledge, and how do you know if you have it? So I kept my ears open; I asked questions; I studied. The answers, of course, varied greatly; parents and teachers and seminary manuals and Deseret Books publications and general conference talks would speak of a burning in the bosom (Luke 24:32), a peace of mind (Mosiah 4:3), a conviction of truth (John 15:26), a spiritual whispering (1 Kings 19:12), etc. But whatever the terminology, there was almost always—or at least so it seems to me today, as I reconstruct events and arguments (both internal and with others) from over the decades—some reference to or assumption of revelation or intuitive realization: some moment or process of insight, whether pure nous or directly from God. Once we “give place” in our hearts to the possibility that the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith, or the history of the Book of Mormon, or the scripture stories about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, may in fact be real and true, there will come a time (assuming we are striving earnestly and righteously, two huge caveats all their own) when this seed will “begin to swell” within us, to “enlighten [our] understanding” about that which we initially merely “desire” to know the truth of (Alma 32:27-28). Whatever it is, then, I came to accept that a testimony is a gift, something recognized or received or planted within us, a confirmation or a connection that comes to a person, granting them something that wasn’t there before.
At some point, as I continued to grow and study and debate and doubt, I also realized that the language of testimony needn’t be so tied to propositional knowledge: the presumably objective facts of Smith’s spiritual authority, the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, the Atonement’s reality. It could be tied to the simple feelings of fellowship which come along with being a practicing member of the community. There came a point when I realized that it wouldn’t have surprised me if such was the case for a great majority of my fellow Mormons—indeed, I am still of such a mind. (Recognizing that I identify with a community, with its obligations and its blessings, stands much more importantly in my thinking today than being able detail and relate to all doctrinal aspects of that community.) But that realization initially didn’t do much to change my thinking, when it first came to me years ago, since whatever else I thought of the matter, it seemed plain to me that as a committed member of the church I couldn’t discount what other members of the community meant when they used the word “testimony.” And their use of it troubled me. Because through my youth and missionary work, through my young adulthood and marriage, through becoming a father and a scholar, it seemed to me almost certain that I didn’t have one.
Almost certain, I should emphasize, for it has also always seemed to me (or at least, it had always seemed so by the time I had figured out a language and had developed enough of a self-awareness to be able to even ask myself this question) quite possible that I had received or recognized something, but had talked myself out of it. I seemed to be good at that, endlessly talking to myself, and that troubled me even more. For in fact I had had experiences—very rare and idiosyncratic experiences, to be sure, but experiences nonetheless (a lost wedding ring which was found following a heartfelt prayer is one that sticks in my mind)—that made me wonder if I hadn’t heard something, felt something, had something confirmed to me . . . but then the doubts would return, doubts attached to the same sins I’d struggled with for years, doubts that would loom up in my thinking as a confirmation of themselves. If I really had recognized within myself or received from God a testimony, wouldn’t I know it? Thus, with frustration and confusion and not a little bitterness, I came over the years to suspect that the gift of a testimony just wasn’t, for whatever reason, going to be mine.
So what changed, in the end? Perhaps nothing changed—I still am unclear as to whether, through all my church service and prayers and scripture study and occasional and careful speaking on fast Sundays, I have ever experienced or felt or heard something that would let me know, for a surety, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, or of the Book of Mormon’s historicity, or the actuality of Christ’s Atonement. But I have also learned to attend to and appreciate other gifts . . . and perhaps that appreciation does constitute a change, after all.
For you see, I actually do know—with a knowledge which I have learned to identify as discursive and hermeneutic, something known not through revelation or insight, but through dialogue, experience, reflection, and interpretation—that I have one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing describes it as a gift of wisdom (D&C 46:17), but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier in the revelation: 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 (vs. 13-14), even if it is not something I may ever be blessed with myself.
My conclusion, in other words, is that I have the gift of believing—which is not the same as knowing, but a gift which I have come to feel more and more grateful to be in possession of all the same. While I am uncertain and doubtful as to any direct influence the divine has had in my own life (and, indeed, am often highly—though I hope also tactfully!—critical of the details of many accounts of such influence which populate our culture), I do not fundamentally doubt the possible truth of any of them. I am open to the supernatural; the idea that an omniscient God may take interest in the life of an ordinary individual such as myself seems perfectly plausible. I have tried the atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe something, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I sensed was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. When I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found truth through the priesthood ordinances elaborated by Joseph Smith, or a relationship with God through the words of the Book of Mormon, or healing through seeking the Atonement through prayer, fasting, and compassionate service in the 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 missionaries and friends I have been blessed with. While I don’t think I have within me any great conviction that they are all right, it doesn’t strike me as at all possible that they are all wrong. The way I even frame such questions arises from the community I am part of, and while embracing a community does not mean agreeing with every single part of it, it does mean acknowledging that one’s identity is not wholly separable from the beliefs which it conveys.
Such belief probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and perhaps it is to a degree. How do I distinguish the value I attach to the beliefs which arise from my own affective relationships to parents and teachers and friends and spouse from those which may arise for someone else whose loving environment differs from mine—a Catholic environment, a Buddhist one, a secular one? In truth, I do not. This is not to say I do not assess the beliefs I encounter in light of my own, and vice-versa; as Charles Taylor has argued, it is a central feature of all moral reasoning to subject our moral and spiritual intuitions to a “strong evaluation,” to comparative “discriminations of right or wrong, better or worse, higher or lower” (Sources of the Self , pg. 4). I do engage in such judgments, all the time, and the resulting evaluations and distinctions make me, I hope, a better—perhaps even a truer—believer, more capable of expressing, and defending, the grounds and implications of that which seems eminently believable about those convictions others have testified to me of. But I cannot pretend that such evaluations amount to the ability to confidently assert a radical epistemological distinction on the part of my own beliefs over and above all others. Ultimately, the most I can say is that non-Mormon beliefs are not my own, and so I debate with and doubt them (though sometimes, upon consideration, I find sympathy with them as well) from the point of view of a tradition I am affectively—and happily—attached to.
That my beliefs are tied up with identity and attachment does not, I think, reduce their value or force. A willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over one’s received beliefs is not the same as relativism. Socrates himself was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all his constant talking, 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” (1 Kings 4:29)—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 I suspect to be 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—as so many I love and have learned from have themselves spoken—with certainty about this thing that I felt, these words which I heard, this miracle which I witnessed, this truth revealed to them. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism so often ends up becoming self-criticism. (“You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?”) So I still pray for confirmation and revelation . . . though admittedly far less often than I used to, as my contemplation of the implications of my gift for believing, a believing which goes hand in hand with debating and doubting, has brought more contentment into my life as the years have gone by. As I reflect upon those I’ve known whose lack of conviction has led them away from the church, and think about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am gifted with a naive belief in the Restoration, and the gospel of Christ.
In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to express all this. Paul Ricoeur described it as a “second naivete,” one which calls us across the “desert of criticism” and makes possible a certain kind of belief in or intuition of the reality of the sacred (The Symbolism of Evil , pg. 349). To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics—which, it is worth noting, 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, such spirits. But in any case, I’m glad that I believe they’re there.
Russell Arben Fox is the husband of Melissa Madsen Fox, with whom he has four children, all daughters. He assumes the possibility that this could be part of some humorous act of compensation visited upon him by a loving God, to make up for having been brought up in a devout Mormon family of nine children, seven of whom were (or at least had to be for the sake of survival) loud and occasionally violent boys. He has lived in South Korea, where he served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in Germany, where he was pursuing dissertation research, as well as in seven different states.
Russell graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in political science (with minors in philosophy and journalism) in 1993; he followed that by earning an MA in International and Area Studies (focusing on East Asian political thought) from BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center in 1994. Then he and Melissa left to Washington DC for a six-year jaunt through graduate school, ending with Russell receiving a PhD in political philosophy (with a minor field in world politics) from Catholic University of America in 2001, where he wrote a dissertation which explored the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder and Charles Taylor on the metaphysical presumptions of communitarian thought. Following his graduation, he taught at Mississippi State University, Arkansas State University, and Western Illinois University, before settling into his current (and, he intends, final) position as director of the political science program at Friends University, a small non-denominational Christian liberal arts college in Wichita, Kansas.
Russell’s areas of teaching range over the whole discipline of political science, with particular interests in American government and political history, comparative politics and political thought (particularly focusing on East Asia and Confucian philosophy), Western political theory and ideologies, radical and democratic theories of political economy, and constitutional law. His research work has touched on several of these topics and beyond, extending into Mormon history and culture, education policy, and bicycling (which he makes his primary mode of transportation). His publications include: “Bicycling and Simplicity,” in Cycling and Philosophy, edited by Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza and Michael W. Austin (London: Blackwell Publishing, forthcoming); “Getting Your Hands Dirty: Notes on How Mormons (and Everyone) Should Work,” The Mormon Review (November 10, 2009); “The Church and the Public Square(s): A Book Review of God and Country: Politics in Utah,” SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 1 (Spring 2009); “Activity and Communal Authority: Localist Lessons from Puritan and Confucian Communities,” Philosophy East and West 58 (January 2008): 36-59; “Making Public Education Popular,” review of Michael W. Apple, Educating the “Right” Way (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001),Theory and Research in Education 5 (July 2007): 133-142; “On Metaphysics and Nationality: The Rival Enlightenments of Kant and Herder,” American Behavioral Scientist 49 (January 2006): 716-732; “Understanding Herder,” review of F.M. Barnard, Herder on Nationality, Humanity, and History (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), The Review of Politics 66 (Summer 2004): 513-515; “Communitarians for Education–But Whose?” The Responsive Community (Fall 2003): 92-95; “J.G. Herder on Language and the Metaphysics of National Community,” The Review of Politics 65 (Spring 2003): 237-262; “Can Theorists Make Time For Belief?,” in Vocations of Political Theory, edited by Jason Frank and John Tambornino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 93-117; “Confucianism and Communitarianism in a Liberal Democratic World,” in Border Crossings: Toward a Comparative Political Theory, edited by Fred Dallmayr (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999), 185-211; “‘Tending’ and ‘Intending’ a Nation: Conflicting Visions of American National Identity,” Polity 31 (Summer 1999): 561-586; and “Confucian and Communitarian Responses to Liberal Democracy,” The Review of Politics 59 (Summer 1997): 561-592.
Posted April 2010