My friend, Andrew, wrote a beautiful and moving post recently - "Dark Night of the Soul". In reading that post and the subsequent comments, I had an epiphany about my own experience with certainty and doubt. I have been thinking about how to explain the difference between my experience and Andrew's - and, even more interesting, the similar result from such different experiences. I will not try to summarize Andrew's post here; that would not do it proper justice. What I will post here is the epiphany that struck me as I read it and the comments about it.
I have not experienced the "dark night" Andrew describes. I have never awakened one morning feeling lost and abandoned. I have wondered often about that - about why it seemed to have "clicked" so early and completely for me - about why I could have been so "certain" of the Restored Gospel at such a young age. The epiphany I mentioned above concerns the "details" of the Gospel and the "nature" of my testimony - that I have understood and recognized from my early youth.
1) I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in First Grade as part of a reading project at school. (I chose to read it; the other kids were reading Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, etc.)
By the time I was seven, I had read the Book of Mormon and fallen in love with the way it made me feel - not the doctrine in it, per se, but the way it opened my mind and heart to some incredible feelings and impressions. I am not a "visual learner", and I don't "see" what I read in the classic sense of being able to envision it in colorful detail. I "got" the words, but more importantly I "got" the "speaking from the dust" aspect - and that was more important than the words for me.
More importantly, I recognized places where it DIDN'T say what others believed it said. Even at that age, I was a parser - and I remember thinking that lots of people in my life, including many adults and leaders, didn't really understand some of the things I was reading in the way that they actually were written. I read passages and thought, "I can understand why people think it says ________________, but it just doesn't say that."
That was a foundational recognition for me - that faithful people could read the same words and understand them differently.
2) Growing up, I remember distinctly the words and example of my father. He taught me so many lessons, but the ones that came back to me as I read Andrew's post were the ones that dealt with certainty - the ones that taught me what I could and couldn't know. My dad is not a philosopher; he hated school and struggled there; in many ways, he is average Joe Mormon; he was and is, however, incredibly insightful and brilliant in his own way. Many of my strongest "understandings" of the Gospel were shaped by what he said and how he lived, particularly when it comes to the issue of certainty and doubt.
I have no idea how many times I heard him say, "I don't know", or, "That sounds good, but we just don't know for sure," or, "I'm not sure that's how I see it," etc.
3) As early as I can remember, I have understood the Gospel to be the core, fundamental, foundational principles of God. I have understood our perspectives to be what "we see through a glass, darkly" - our best attempt to make out the details within the general outline we have been given. I have understood the focus of this life to be the process of becoming like God - of taking our fallen nature and repenting, by changing that fallen nature into an exalted ("raised") nature. I have understood that there can be certainty in that process - in the type of faith that motivates us to act in order to change (repent), to accept baptism as the symbol of that effort and to strive to be connected to God through a spiritual line (the Holy Ghost) through the grace of God, but I also have understood that everything else is just details. I have understood that there is certainty in the ideal - in the ultimate end - in the foundation principles, but I also have understood that everything we see and believe and extrapolate and conjecture and assume is subject to "further light and knowledge" - that even with more light and knowledge, we still see through our glasses, darkly.
My eiphany is that I am comfortable living in my own "dark night" that is similar in practical result as Andrew's (one that is not cut off from God but simply cut off from certainty about the details) but that came about quite differently than his did for him. I have lived there for as long as I can remember. I have never believed in the certainty that he describes prior to his own dark night, so I have never felt abandoned by its loss. My "dark night" appears "light" to me, because I have never believed I see things clearly and completely. I just see them as clearly as I am capable of seeing them - which I understand and accept as darkly. I have never been shaken by doubt of detail, because my testimony has never been founded on certainty of detail. There are things I feel completely comfortable saying I "know" for myself, but I have never felt like anyone else had to "know" anything with certainty to enjoy the fruits of the Restoration.
I return to the scripture I mentioned above - I Cor. 13:9-13. In full text, it reads:
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
I believe I know in part, and I believe our prophets prophecy in part. I believe that will change someday, but I have no idea when that will be. There was a time, prior to my first reading of the Book of Mormon, when I thought as a child - that everything was black and white and I could know it all; I put away that belief at a very early age. I believe I see through my own glass, darkly and, therefore, only in part; I believe someday I will know fully.
Verse 8 is the bridge between the characteristics of charity and the outlook charity provides. It says:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
Given this perspective, I live now with faith and hope that I will understand and know more fully on an on-going basis as my future unfolds. The greatest thing I can do in the here and now, however, is to be charitable - to obtain the characteristics in 1 Cor. 13:4-7 and allow them to grow within me and change me into the type of person who can accept both my own perceptual limitations and wherever others are in their own spiritual maturation process.
I am certain of many things, but those things are principles - not details. Radical changes in policy and even "doctrine" don't shake me, since I have never based my testimony on those things. I believe firmly and deeply in the PRINCIPLE of ongoing-revelation and charity exercised in how I view others - that what I believe now differs from what I believed as a youth and young adult - that what I believe now differs from what I will believe in the future. I believe that the charity God gave me as a youth will not fail me, even as prophecies and tongues and knowledge fail all around me. In my youth, this was an unconsciously proactive embrace of the core concept embedded in the dark night; in my adulthood, it is a light shining in darkness. I like to think of it as the extended Bright Night of My Soul.