(This is part one of a two-part post. You can find part 2 here.- Ed.)
One of the scary things about testing the waters of agnosticism as a Mormon is that we are, quite simply, a religion that culturally and institutionally is antithetical to the notion of agnosticism in the first place, and we are socialized accordingly. From the very beginning of our spiritual lives, the emphasis is placed on surety, on certainty, on making that leap from “faith” to “knowledge.” And that’s understandable. For one thing, our foundational text ends with a promise that if you ask with faith, you’ll receive a certain knowledge of the veracity of said text and all the accompanying implications. “And if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” Nice. All you have to do is sincerely ask. Real intent. Faith in Christ. Like, it seems pretty straightforward. But, there’s a problem there.
The problem is that if you happened to be one of those people, especially someone who was, say, already baptized into the Church at an age where they had trouble grasping the plot of a Boxcar Children novel, who didn’t come away from that prayer (or those many, many prayers) with a firm answer, well…that’s not great is it? Which thing were you lacking, then? Faith? That’s bad. Sincerity? That’s really bad. You didn’t even mean it when you asked. That’s enormous amount of pressure to know. Not to hope. Not to believe. To know (preferably with every fiber of your being/soul). Some of us, though, had one or several soul fibers that just didn’t quite get fully saturated with knowledge, and I can tell you, as one of them, that every time it comes up over the course of your religious life, it is a little bit jarring. Over time, it wears on you.
When I entered the MTC as a smooth-faced, ill-fitted suit wearing neo-ascetic in the fall of 2004, I had never read the Book of Mormon cover to cover. I don’t know if I had ever read a full chapter of the Book of Mormon on my own. I had memorized seminary scriptures just long enough to repeat and forget them. I had slept, physically or mentally, through basically every seminary lesson I had ever gone to and only given the most cursory attention to nightly family scripture reading. Now, a real full-time Mormon for the first time in my adult life, I was committed to the basics of actually believing in the religion it was now my job to propagate to the atheist hell holes of Western Europe. I started reading the Book of Mormon and tried to avoid any discussion that required a detailed knowledge of Gospel doctrine or the scriptures (I remember with acute embarrassment being the only person who wasn’t sure who Teancum was and asking “wasn’t he…a king?”, a question that was met with an MTC version of rather hostile derision).
In the MTC, I faced a constant barrage of “pure” testimony, and while I felt that I was there for the right reasons, I wanted to be able to be just as sure as everyone else that the Book of Mormon was true. I wanted my heart to burn with the spiritual fire that I was convinced drove the engines of every other missionary but me (at the time I didn’t quite realize the irony of already “knowing” the Church was true and just asking God to confirm the fact). My time at the MTC never really got me there. I had spiritual experiences and I was an enthusiastic young elder, but that nagging lack of fire that I knew was unique only to me and that one missionary whose main post-mission goal was to become a Mason was something I carried with me throughout those two years.
The most dramatic example of my inability to have a lightning bolt of faith strike my heart came when, recalling my MTC companion’s story of how he knelt in the Sacred Grove and prayed for a testimony and felt an overwhelming knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, I tried a poor man’s version of the same thing. On a p-day hike, I sneaked briefly away from my trainer, just long enough to find a secluded spot in the woods and pray out loud for my own First Vision Experience. Maybe it was the fact that I’d broken a mission rule in my quest for perfect knowledge, or maybe it’s the fact that God seems to have no jurisdiction in France, but I trudged back to my trainer and the other missionaries feeling entirely underwhelmed and vastly inferior to my MTC companion, who was so spiritual that even thinking about the Gospel seemed to drive him to tears.
Again, I had spiritual experiences as a missionary, and I’ve had them since. I sincerely loved reading the Book of Mormon. It brought me comfort during miserable days of missionary drudgery, which is what most of a mission in Western Europe consists of. But that defining answer to a prayer daily proffered never came, and I spent those two years in the shadow of an inferiority complex for it. To even speak of the fact would have been anathema, but I always felt like it was somehow evident to those with whom I spoke about the Church, and that every time I bore testimony to a rapidly retreating Frenchman or a bored African refugee, they could feel that I didn’t really believe it. It really wasn’t for lack of trying, though.
There’s a point to this long-winded narration of my missionary past, and it’s the fact that, well, I did have a testimony all along, in its own form. I had never received that punch-in-face Moroni’s Promise Moment, but in my own way I believed, or even “knew,” the Church was true. Ironically, it took me so long to know I knew because of Moroni’s promise. In my mind, testimony came not from a love of the Church and Gospel principles, from the happiness they brought you when you lived them, or even a deep-set hope in the Atonement and moral principles taught by Christ, all of which I possessed. I thought a testimony needed to also be accompanied by an incontrovertible spiritual experience, a kind of badge of authority that I could flash to wandering faith seekers I encountered. I was fairly certain that my middling testimony, without any kind of endorsement from the Holy Ghost, was the reason my message so rarely penetrated the hearts and minds of those I was supposed to be teaching. I would later realize that a) I was simply not a very good teacher, b) no one else’s testimonies seemed to be doing anything either, and c) penetrating a French heart with a spiritual message from an obscure American sect of Christianity is a akin to trying to pierce military grade body armor with wet corn starch.
I did have a testimony, and eventually I realized it, but by the time I did it was already too late. Coming to terms with not receiving a clear “Moroni’s Promise/First Vision” took a lot of time and thought and sometimes struggle, but gaining that understanding was an important step in my spiritual growth. It helped keep me invested and active in the Church when it would have been really easy to check out after I got home, accepting my failure to get the real answer I was seeking. Certainly when, years later, I started doubting the very existence of God, it provided me with a little bit of flexibility in how I coped with those doubts intellectually. After all, I had had a testimony for years without really knowing the way most Mormons seem to (or claim to).