Over the past two months I have been teaching seminars on the Enlightenment at my university. The Enlightenment was a period of intellectual history that arguably was the start of modern western values and a significant factor in the formation of modern France and America. Discussing the ideas of the Enlightenment with my students has brought home to me just how powerful and ground-breaking some of their ideas were.

For instance, Thomas Paine, writer of two revolutionary pamphlets that influenced the US in their declaration of independence from Britain, published a book called The Age of Reason that voiced a hostile critique of eighteenth century Christianity. Like many other Enlightenment figures Paine viewed organised and institutional religions as tyrannical constructs made by men to control people. In The Age of Reason Paine collects some of his views on religion within it. Paine advocates a cafeteria approach to religion in which the individual forms their own set of beliefs free from the constraint of national religious institutions.

“My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit… Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

Whilst his ideas of an individual focused religion have recently been denounced by some members of the twelve as a pick and mix type of obedience, while others claim ALL Mormons are cafeteria Mormons to some extent. He also discusses free-thinking and revelation:

“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.”

The key point that Paine is making is that just because someone else says that something is a revelation it does not make it a revelation to me. This idea sounds like common sense; after all we don’t take every prophet of doom at the street corner at his word. We all seem to know inherently that not everything that is called revelation is necessarily revelation (such as revelation of the hormonal type that tells some single men that a certain woman should marry them).

The question then is how do we move from hearsay revelation to actual revelation that is binding to us personally. Mohammed claimed to have received a revelation, just like Joseph Smith and modern day leaders, yet we don’t simply accept that on face value.  How do we filter the claims to revelation to determine what is actually revelation?

One method is a mechanism taught in the church called ‘personal revelation.’  Using this method an individual has a personal spiritual or emotional experience that confirms that it was in fact a revelation. Lectures on Faith describes a chain of communication in which God first reveals himself to a prophet who then testifies to others about his experience with God. These others then build their faith on the basis of the prophet’s testimony. The basis of faith in these stories is trust in the testimony of others.  As the Lectures say:

“What testimony have men, in the first instance, that there is a God? Human testimony, and human testimony only. . . It was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers, this testimony having aroused their minds to inquire after the knowledge of God”

By having faith in human testimony we seek confirmation from God for ourselves. The problem is that this process has circular parameters set about what can be considered a satisfactory answer. Boyd K. Packer and others have reminded us that if our personal revelation is true, our confirmation will always be in harmony with the revelation given to those leaders above us.

“The Lord’s house is a house of order. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one [else], to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves.”

This is not describing an individual finding out for him or herself; rather, it is about bringing the individual into line with the institution. The leaders of the church receive revelation, and we must either take it on trust that it was a revelation, or we must seek out a revelation or an emotional response (i.e. warm fuzzy feeling) that confirms to us that it was a revelation. If we receive anything other than confirmation that the revelation came from God then evidently we have received a false or counterfeit revelation, and we must not be in tune with the spirit enough. This puts the institutional leaders in the role of arbitrators of our own personal experiences; what may have been a spiritual experience and seemed like a revelation to me can be debunked and dismissed by the church as part of Satan’s power over me if it is not in harmony with the Brethren and the already accepted canon of revelation.  By this logic, if my own experience ever contradicts what a leader claims as revelation, I am always in the wrong; I must blindly trust the experiences of leaders over my own experiences.  On the other hand, if I doubt that they have received revelation and feel no obligation to accept it, it is viewed as my personal failure, not a failure of the method of personal revelation.

This leaves me with the problem of working out what are the necessary conditions for me to accept something as revelation? How do I escape the revelation circle and discovery for myself what is in fact a revelation and not just hearsay and trust in the experience of others?