How strong is your testimony? Before you start with the eye rolling, I’m not talking just about Latter-day Saints. I’m talking about you as well.
Yes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sort of trademarked the phrase “bearing your testimony.” But the reality is that it’s simply our preferred way of expressing belief.
This isn’t just a Mormon thing. Some Christians “witness” for Jesus. Members of other faiths publicly profess their level of devotion by the way they dress, comb (or don’t) their hair, and even the volume in which they gobble in tongues.
Back to us. I grew up listening to people say, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the church is true” or “I know Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God” and “I know the Savior died for our sins.”
This was all well and good at the time. I was a kid. Adults were supposed to be smart. Yeah, that didn’t last long.
Eventually, I was old enough to start questioning the choice of words. How can you absolutely “know” something is true and six months later “know” that it’s not?
It took years before I realized that human belief — particularly the parts we’re most certain about with the least amount of evidence — is more about personality than proof.
There are five kinds of testimonies. While they all have subtle variations within their respective category, there are only five primary categories.
The cool part about personality-based belief is that it’s an effective template for all manner of things upon which humans have opinions — politics, art, conspiracies, noises in the dark, and so on.
To make it universal, let’s remove the word “church” and use “whatever” so as to include everyone — Christian, Jew, Muslim, Republican, whatever. One more thing: I’ll use a single word to describe the type of belief being manifested in [whatever]. Ready? Here we go.
• Know — As in “I know the [whatever] is true.” It’s one thing to say “I know that [whatever] is true beyond the shadow of a doubt” and quite another to say “I know that if I stick my head in a wood chipper, I’ll get a bad haircut.”
While the evidence for the former is questionable, evidence for the latter is not only available but also easily verifiable. Just go get a wood chipper.
Warning: People in the “know” category are so certain of their belief in [whatever] that any attempt to change their minds is likely to make them disagreeable.
• Believe — Believing something is true can approximate knowledge but comes with an escape hatch. There’s less certainty and more wiggle room to allow for mistakes.
You have to be careful with belief. Even when this relaxed, your faith can get you in trouble. Case in point: “I believe if I just follow the [whatever], everything will be OK, or at the very least not my fault.”
• Hope — “I hope the [whatever] is true” is a safer bet. It’s possible to point to elements of [whatever] that are true — love, mercy, forgiveness, giving — but hope doesn’t require total commitment to idiocies like a literal snake in an actual Garden of Eden, polygamy, or stupid color tests for entering the priesthood.
• Question — Saying “I question whether the [whatever] is true” is not for the faint of heart. It’s OK to feel this way but might not be something you should say out loud around the “Know” types, especially while in church.
Questioning, though, is the best way I know of to discover truth. While truth may continue to be elusive, the exercise spent seeking it will do you good. When it comes to uncertainty, there’s nothing more dangerous/useless than an intractable mind.
• Doubt — Doubting that the [whatever] is “true” while still participating in the [whatever] — and there are plenty of good reasons for doing so — can be lonely. But it’s better to wrestle with doubt than to become lazy. The most doubtful are always the least surprised.
In the end, it’s up to individuals to decide what category they belong in — and then to make it do them the most good without hurting others. I have a testimony of that.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.