Monday, February 16, 2009

In Opposition to
Testimony as Rhetorical Bludgeon

Testimony is a unique aspect of LDS doctrine and praxis. It is similar in some ways to the protestant phenomenon of "being saved," or "getting convicted" of the truth. It is made more unusual by our somewhat ritualistic practice of "bearing testimony": the once-a-month program of telling fellow church members what we already know, expressed in commonly accepted phrases. It is at least a fascinating cultural marker, and means by which members bind themselves to the community.

However, testimony, like almost any aspect of religion, has its proper time and place. Unfortunately, much has been made of the idea that "no one can argue with a testimony!" (This statement is, of course, patently false.) Because of this, bearing testimony is seen as a kind of trump card, to be thrown down defiantly in the midst of debate to silence all opposition! This practice is, in its way, more pernicious than the usual biblical proof-texting/bashing that goes on in marathon apologetics matches. This is so for a number of reasons.

1. As testimony is tied to spiritual insight/intuition and worthiness, to use testimony against an intellectual opponent is to call into question their worthiness. (This is not unusual; for some practitioners, step-one of Mormon apologetics is "Character Assassination.") It also uncharitably forces one's opponent into the uncomfortable position of questioning one's own worthiness.

2. Since testimony springs from interaction with the Holy Ghost, using it in debate may sully or demean the character of a member of the Godhead. Thus the debate becomes a sort of "my deity can beat up your deity" argument.

3. To so use one's testimony totally refuses to take into account the fact that good, wise, spiritually sensitive people can disagree on spiritual topics and never reach (in this life) agreement. Take, for instance, the issue of organic evolution as considered by the Twelve Apostles. The Church attempted to formulate some kind of official position. Various members of the Twelve researched the topic, prayed, and presented their differing opinions. On one side stood B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe; among the opposition was Joseph Fielding Smith. In spite of much study and prayer they never reached any agreement!

4. It is possible for promptings/revelations to (seemingly) contradict each other. Of course, of two mutually exclusive propositions, both may not be true. However, with time, we may learn that the propositions are not, in fact, exclusive. Or perhaps we may find that the Spirit was bearing testimony to what we could understand, but giving us a rather simplified picture which will one day become clearer, more nuanced.

In any case, we ought to resist––adamantly!––this abuse of testimony. To so beat a heavenly plow, given to sow truth in our souls, into a sword of hubris is inexcusable. If there is to be debate, let us use appropriate rules of engagement, not character assassination, veiled in the aspartame of tearful saccharine. A knife coated with honey is no less a knife. It is against this practice that I offer the following few lines:

How blithely we declare "I know,"
But saying doesn't make it so.
Turn on the quivering voice and tears,
(The nose runs when the Spirit's near)!
Go on, parade for all to see
This strange epistemology––
Stand with the weeping, certain crowd:
"It's true for being said aloud!"
Marshalled in lachrymosal ranks,
We roll out our rhetorical tanks––
But will we find, once we've attacked,
We're routed by a single FACT?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Madonna of the Roses

This is my new favorite painting. Ever. Now, take a moment and listen to the song below while enjoying this image. (You can open a larger version by clicking on it.) It'll be the best eight minutes of your day.

Here are the lyrics (adapted from a devotion called the Angelus):

The Angel of the Lord declared to Mary:
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord: Be it done unto me according to Thy word.

Hail Mary . . .

And the Word was made Flesh: And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary . . .

Amen, amen, amen.

And that, folks, is why we need more Catholics in the world.