My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

This past weekend wasn’t just Memorial Day; according to the traditional liturgical calendar, it also included Whitsunday, a celebration of the Day of Pentecost and the spiritual gifts bestowed upon the early disciples on that day. Acts 2:2-4: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And there were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

I have never personally experienced anything remotely like this, or indeed, remotely like any of the spiritual gifts promised to the faithful by Paul or Moroni. I have never seen or been party to a healing that struck me as having anything miraculous about it. I have never prophesied, nor directly witnessed the fulfilling of a prophecy. I have never seen an angel, discerned spirits, or spoken in tongues. With only a very few and very small exceptions, mine has not been a life graced, so far as I know (or so far as my own pride and sins allow me to recognize), with spiritual guidance, revelation, confirmation, or testimony.

Yet I know I have been given one spiritual gift, or perhaps two (they’re related, I believe). My patriarchal blessing describes it as a gift of wisdom, but to me the truer description of my gift comes a couple of verses earlier: 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, even if it is not something I’ll ever be blessed with myself.

I am, in short, a believer, if not a knower. While I have never seen with my own eyes evidence of any of the aforementioned, more spectacular spiritual gifts, and while I am often critical of accounts of such, I do not fundamentally doubt any of them. I’ve tried the existential, atheistic route, and it was a failure: I simply couldn’t pretend to myself that I didn’t believe, that I didn’t suffer from a sehnsucht or longing for that which I felt was plainly there, despite my inability to actually apprehend any of it. In short, certainty eludes me, but credibility comes easily. I would be lying if I said I knew where the power of God resides in this world, but I do not think I have ever doubted that it isresiding somewhere…and when I see men and women whom I know to be good and loving and intelligent people testify that they have found God through Christ’s grace, through the Book of Mormon, through 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 friends I have been blessed with. While I don’t think I have within me any great conviction that they are all right, it also doesn’t strike as at all possible that they are all wrong.

What I’m describing here probably sounds somewhat indiscriminate, and of course it is to a degree. I believe in lots of things (like Santa Claus, for instance), as I tend to think it reasonable to not discount the possibility that truth and beauty and God’s power may dwell within practically all things. (Which makes me into a kind of panentheist, I know.) But I’m also a debater and a doubter. Is that contradictory? I don’t think so–I think that a willingness to Socratically struggle (with oneself and with others) over what reality and wisdom really are, even if (perhaps especially if) you never feel as though you have arrived at a conclusion as to what that reality is, is a sine qua non of belief. Socrates was no sophist: he was a realist, in the sense that he never appeared to feel that there wasn’t something real to all this talk about justice and virtue and wisdom, 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”–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 it is that I suspect is 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 with certainty about this thing that I did and these words which I spoke and this miracle which I witnessed. Being critical is often a drag, especially when one’s criticism always ends up becoming self-criticism. (“You say you doubt that’s true, but don’t you also doubt your doubts?”) It can be a very effective tool in polemical settings, but talking about deep yet inarticulate feelings by way of what you doubt you have any good reason not to believe (“I’ve never felt inclined not to believe that President Hinckley may be receiving revelation”) really kind of stinks as far as testimony-bearing goes. So I still pray for confirmation and revelation, though admittedly far less often than I used to. For now however, reflecting upon those I’ve known whose lack of conviction has led them anyway from the church, and thinking about how much my children need to see their parents grounded in something, I treasure the fact that somehow or another I am yet gifted to be bound by naive belief to the gospel of Christ.

In fact naivete, properly understood, is probably the best way to think about this. Paul Ricoeur described it (in The Symbolism of Evil [1967]) as a “second naivete,” one which calls us across the “desert of criticism” and makes possible a certain kind of belief or intuition of the reality of the sacred. To Ricoeur such naivete was a function of hermeneutics–but then hermeneutics 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, as did the early apostles, the gifts of the spirit. But in any case, I’m glad that I believe they’re there.

16 comments for “My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

  1. Scott
    June 1, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing your testimony.


  2. Kaimi
    June 1, 2004 at 9:11 pm

    This is a great post, Russell. Your discussion reminds me of a wonderful line by Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote about his character San Manuel, a doubting priest, that he died “beieving that he did not believe [in God] . . . but without believing that he believed it, believing it.” (It sounds kind of clunky in English; it’s a great sort of word play in Spanish, and I’m sure there are better ways to translate it).

    Unamuno gives us someone who “without believing that he believed, believed.” I wonder if it’s possible without knowing that you know something, to know it.

  3. Tom
    June 1, 2004 at 9:31 pm

    Sounds like a line from the matrix trilogy… Should be followed by “whoa” :)

  4. obi-wan
    June 1, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    “Unamuno gives us someone who “without believing that he believed, believed.” I wonder if it’s possible without knowing that you know something, to know it.”

    Seems like Woody Allen’s definition of epistemology: Is knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?

  5. June 2, 2004 at 1:04 am

    Russell, thanks for such care-full thoughts. Oddly, though I have had some of the experiences promised by Paul and Moroni, most of the time I have to believe on the words of others anyway–or remember my experiences, which is an awful lot like believing on the words of others after a short while.

  6. June 2, 2004 at 12:15 pm

    Jim’s comments make me wonder: is it possible to “appropriate” the words of others similar to the way that we appropriate the memory of our own experiences?

  7. June 2, 2004 at 12:20 pm

    As for “believing without believing that we believe”: my grandmother passed away a few months ago, and my mother expressed her conviction of the continuation of life after death. I felt no such assurance, and suspect that my belief or lack thereof may be evident only when I am confronted with the death of someone to whom I am very close.

    Is it odd to say, “I hope that I believe”?

  8. Adam Greenwood
    June 2, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    What an odd thing to say, Jim F., and how very true, that our memories of pentecostal experiences never seem any more convincing, long afterward, than do other people’s accounts of their own experiences. I sometimes have to will my belief, saying ‘I feel right now that I don’t know, but I know that I do know, so forward.’

  9. cooper
    June 2, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    The pentacostal accounts of others help me to know I’m not crazy. So many people don’t have these types of manifestations that I began to feel I was crazy, kindof. I do not, however, share these manifestations with others for that same reason. Spiritual manifestations are so personal that to share them with others “cheapens” them in a way for me.

    So in short what I am saying is that it is good to draw from others. How many others are having them – afraid to mention them for fear of being thought a loon? Are they willingly heard and accepted by others?

  10. June 2, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    Grasshopper: to me it seems not only reasonable but necessary to say that we appropriate others words in the same way that we appropriate our own memories, though I would probably have put that the other way around: we appropriate our memories in the same way that we appropriate the words of others. There is an important sense in which we are other to ourselves, an experience we have in sin (“I do what I would not”), but not only in sin (I never completely know who I am).

    I hope it makes sense to say “I hope that I believe” since that is an experience I have often had. In fact that is how I would describe Adam Greenwood’s “I feel right now that I don’t know, but I know that I do know, so forward.”

  11. June 2, 2004 at 4:21 pm


    I deliberately turned your statement around because I think I understand better how I am “other” to myself than I do how I can identify others with myself. It seems to me that while there is a sense in which my memories are “other,” there is also a very real sense in which there is a continuity of identity that comes with them (or at least with some of them). I don’t have that same sense when hearing the words of others, and this is what I was getting at with my question.

    When I appropriate my memories, I assent to their being mine; can we do the same with the words of others? Is this related to the gift Russell discusses aove? When we colloquially say that we can identify with what someone is saying, are we appropriating their words as ours — empathy?

  12. Adam Greenwood
    June 2, 2004 at 5:02 pm

    I have had a few experiences that were pentecostal, but I’m such a slouch that I spend most of my time contending with doubt (well, actually, contending with sin, but doubt sometimes too). Sometimes I read my journal and think, how did I forget about that!?

  13. June 2, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    Grasshopper: I don’t disagree with the point you make by reversing my claim. However, I “insisted” on that order because I wanted to emphasize the otherness of self, something that I think we too often overlook.

  14. June 2, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    “There is an important sense in which we are other to ourselves, an experience we have in sin (I do what I would not), but not only in sin (I never completely know who I am).”

    Thanks for putting this down Jim; in a way it seems to me to encapsulate a great deal that I have been pondering over the past weeks and months (including some issues that I have written about here). Our mortal, fallen condition seems to be one in which immediacy has been lost, replaced an interiority that, while it may (as some have argued) provide us a rich and even beneficial route back to God, nonetheless continually throws up roadblocks of self-consciousness, preventing us from getting at who we are and why we do what we do. Hence it makes sense to describe faith itself as a gift of the spirit; to be able to fuse our knowingness with what we know (and thus, in classic testimony-bearing mode, be able to say “I know (unstated portion: “that I know”) the church is true”) is very likely a miraculous spiritual gift, as we certainly lack the epistemological resources to achieve it on our own. Perhaps it is not a rare gift (Moroni’s promise theoretically extends it to everyone who reads the Book of Mormon), though if my experience is any guide at least, it is not a universal one. Fortunately there are, I think, other gifts. Former Sunstone editor Peggy Fletcher Stack (who wrote a profound essay years back, titled “Picking Up Faith Along the Way,” from which I got this story) was and is a skeptical saint; as a very critical and polemical student at BYU, she got into all sorts of arguments, at the conclusion of one of which she heard a voice telling her “Peggy, quit fighting me.” What she considered the greatest miracle was not what she heard, but that fact that she could still remember hearing it, and still believe in that moment of hearing many years later. While I cannot recollect any such experience in my life, I can recollect and still “believe in” other experiences, experiences with my father and mother, with my wife and children, with teachers and friends, all of which bring me close to a knowledge which nonetheless is clearly not my own.

  15. Greg Call
    June 2, 2004 at 8:18 pm

    I have nothing particular to add to this conversation, but I just wanted to note my appreciation for the insight, honesty and eloquence of both the original post and subsequent comments. Thanks.

  16. cooper
    June 2, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    Thanks, Adam. I’ve gotten far enough down the road that I no longer have the doubt that it happened. I still contend with the sin (pride mostly) issue however.

    Russell it’s the self-consiousness that gets me every time; it’s probably why I can’t share. I appreciate your comments it helps me understand why I have to listen and share when appropriate.

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