07 May 2008

On Testimony: Preliminary Thoughts

As Latter-day Saints, we meet once each month in a testimony meeting. Within the context of "Mormon" parlance, the word "testimony" conjures many lines of thinking. Instruction on what should or should not have a part of the shared testimony in monthly testimony meetings and in other contexts has often limited itself to the propriety of certain kinds of expressions. "Travel logs" and "thank-you-monies" have been condemned, whereas statements asserting "knowledge" of fundamental beliefs such as "God lives, Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith is a prophet, the Book of Mormon is true, and the priesthood has been restored" have been approved. (As taught, eloquently and insightfully by Elder Oaks in our most recent conference of April 2008 here http://lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-851-10,00.html). My purpose here is not to drift into such minutia; rather, I hope to address the subject more broadly as well as raise some questions that I (and anyone who happens to join me on here) may find interesting in our continuing meditations.

As an attorney, testimony tends to have a more specific meaning (in some regards) for me than, perhaps, for others. Additional perspectives from other angles always enhance such understanding as well. Courtroom testimony does not concern any specific subject. Instead, advocates elicit relevant testimony from witnesses to point to events out of the courtroom and lend credence to a certain narration of the "facts." Witnesses are not said to "have a testimony," nor is their testimony considered as an "other" apart from them. Indeed, cross-examination and counter-witnesses may be brought forward by an adverse party to destroy the credibility of a witness's testimony. The testimony of a witness constitutes the sum of their words, supplemented by any relevant thoughts or actions that can be shown to strengthen or weaken that testimony.

Webster's 1828 Dictionary offers the following on testimony:

"TEST'IMONY, n. [L. testimonium.] A solemn declaration or affirmation made for the purpose of establishing or proving some fact. Such affirmation in judicial proceedings,may be verbal or written, but must be under oath. Testimony differs from evidence; testimony is the declaration of a witness, and evidence is the effect of that declaration on the mind, or the degree of light which it affords.

1. Affirmation; declaration. These doctrines are supported by the uniform testimony of the fathers. The belief of past facts must depend on the evidence of human testimony, or the testimony of historians.
2. Open attestation; profession. ...
3. Witness; evidence; proof of some fact. ...
4. In Scripture, the two tables of the law. ...
5. The book of the law.
6. The gospel, which testifies of Christ and declares the will of God. 1 Cor. 2. 2 Tim.1.
7. The ark. Ex.16.
8. The word of God; the Scriptures.
9. The laws or precepts of God. "I love thy testimonies." "I have kept thy testimonies."
10. That which is equivalent to a declaration; manifestation.
11. Evidence suggested to the mind; as the testimony of conscience. 2 Cor.1.
12. Attestation; confirmation."

None of these definitions, most prevalent at the time of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, suggests that individuals gain a testimony which could be considered external to themselves. Given the legal context which seems relevant to every way in which the word "testimony" would be used in testimony-bearing situations pertinent to the Latter-day Saints, the courtroom understanding seems an appropriate window to illuminate the meaning of testimony.

More carefully then, the first crucial component of true testimony consists of elicitation of testimony by an Advocate. Thus, testimony presents itself less as an answer from God and more as our response to His call. Instead of pridefully assuming that we can dictate the terms of our answers, we must humble ourselves to hear His call, then respond appropriately. Further calls follow until we have sufficient experience to express our witness ("testimony") in relevant ways.

Relevant testimony is the point of testimony to which I alluded above which has received extensive treatment in instruction from Church leaders. We are instructed that we share our witnesses about certain kinds of experiences. This instruction could be perceived as limiting our witness and pigeonholing it in ways that stifle spiritual growth. Understood in the light of expressing experiences that reflect the call-response-call-response... world-view, however, the instruction merely gives shape to our expressions. When we have an experience where we recognize the Lord's hand in our lives such that an appropriate declaration of that experience would form a cogent and credible witness of the Lord, we will find transcending patterns of experience to which we can parallel our own.

These patterns allow the individual witnesses (and the opposition from cross-examination and extrinsic "character" evidence for each individual) to corroborate facts "external" to the collective testimony of all of the witnesses. The Advocate can weave an elaborate tapestry of witnesses into a pattern supporting the transcending experiences of each individual, echoed over eternity. (See also http://www.angelfire.com/planet/morrisonwritings/transcendence.doc). Credibility of witnesses then becomes important.

This issue of witness credibility brings me to my closing thoughts in this preliminary sketch of testimony. Each individual experiences God individually. The credibility of a witness's declarations depend, at least to a degree, on the witness's actions and intentions (thoughts) regarding those declarations. In this way, gospel witnesses become living "testimonies." Indeed, Paul taught, "ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart" (2 Cor. 3:3). Thus, bearing testimony becomes a matter of becoming rather than declaring. Our statements merely reflect the relationship we have chosen in response to our Advocate with the Father and His call. Testimony meeting, then, does not consist in trite declarations of knowledge (however defined); rather, it ideally presents the voices of witnesses expressing their experiences of becoming living testimonies--and in so doing embodying the Advocate and echoing His call, eliciting further testimony.

As a final note, enduring to the end merely consists of resisting attacks on the credibility of our witness--maintaining a relationship of affirmative response to the Advocate's call.

Thoughts? Limitations on my courtroom approach that I'm not seeing? Criticisms? Do we objectify out of meaningfulness testimony by other approaches? And can this approach mesh with Alma 32?

I'll gather more thoughts on this and post again later...

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