From the Archives: My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

May 11, 2008 | 6 comments
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Today is Whitsunday on the Christian liturgical calendar, a holiday in honor of the Day of Pentecost. Not quite four years ago, in June of 2005, I wrote something about the gifts demonstrated on that day, and about those–decidedly less spetacular–gifts which I believe I have. I’m somewhat proud of it; I think it is one of the more honest things I’ve ever written about myself. The text is below; you might want to check out the comments on the original post as well.

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.

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6 Responses to From the Archives: My Gifts (Whitsunday Reflections)

  1. Researcher on May 11, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    On our way to church we drive past a church (well, actually we drive past about twenty churches, but I’ll just mention one) that has a cross up on their front lawn. During Lent it is draped in purple and on Easter they drape it in white. Today when we drove past it was draped in red and I was like, “hunh?” (Actual quote.)

    Thanks for explaining the meaning of the day in other parts of Christianity.

  2. Mark B. on May 11, 2008 at 9:03 pm

    You might just want to make that “not quite three years ago”.

  3. Sean Sprague on May 11, 2008 at 9:34 pm

    You are correct to question, or not believe fully in the LDS gospel. Mormonism is not Christianity. Christ died to pay for our sins. Every lie, every theft, every adulterous thought, every blasphemous word (and thought), every act of greed/covetesnous, every time you disobeyed your parents, every murderous thought, etc. Examine yourself in the mirror of the Ten Commandments. How are you going to pay for those sins, your debt? No liar, thief, adulterer, blasphemer will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You can never be saved by works of the law, or any other. Please read the first 8 chapters of Romans. Ephesians 2, the book of Colossians (especially ch. 2 \”he wiped out the certificate of debt having nailed it to the cross.) Christ was the propitiation for our sins. Our petty good works are like trying to pay someone a penny for giving us a mansion and everything we need for life. It is a slap in God\’s face.
    Please study LDS history and the lack of evidence for the BOM (a great Mormon historian B.H. Roberts wrote A Book of Mormon Study….read it), the Pearl of Great Price, which Joseph Smith translated from Egyptian papyrus, that has since been revealed to be a common funerary text called the book of breathings, not the writings of Joseph of Egypt.
    There truly is a hell, and it is eternal. Repent (turn from your sins and sinful lifestyle) and place your faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His payment for your sins. Not in phony temple rituals that are found nowhere in biblical or secular history besides satanism and Masonic Rites.

    If I\’m wrong: I still believe Jesus Christ was the Son of God who died for my sins, I get into the second level of LDS heaven. From there it\’s just a hop, skip and a jump, a post-death acceptance of Joseph Smith\’s gospel and I get to be a god just like everyone else who lived (besides the sons of perdition who were baptized into the LDS church but left.)

    If you and your family are wrong: It\’s eternity in hell for believing in a false god, a false prophet, a false messiah, and all the rest of your sins.
    Please, I don\’t intend to be mean, if that\’s how I come off, but we are talking about your eternal soul. The Bible is the inspired word of God. Jesus Christ did live, He did die, and you can find salvation in Him.
    By grace you are saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is God\’s gift, and not of works so that no man can boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9) If I boast I will boast in the Lord!

    Please, let\’s start a conversation. You have my email address. I am writing this because I care and do not want anyone to go to hell.

  4. Kathryn Lynard Soper on May 11, 2008 at 11:46 pm

    Russell, what about the grounding that comes through experiencing the power of the atonement? Isn’t that the central way Christians see and feel with immediacy?

  5. Adam Greenwood on May 12, 2008 at 11:50 am

    God bless.

  6. Kaimi Wenger on May 13, 2008 at 1:34 am

    Interesting timing, Russell. The day you posted this, I was teaching about gifts of the spirit.

    We read from the manual, the old Times and Seasons editorial about gifts of God. We read the paragraph where a witness recounted that Joseph Smith preached that every latter-day saint had at least one gift of the spirit. And we read Moroni 10.

    I like the idea of sharing the gifts of God. There are great and small gifts, but they are all precious.

WELCOME

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