Today’s guest post is from long-time commenter and friend of the blog, Elisa. Elisa is an attorney married to another attorney, and the two of them have produced four (overly) critically thinking and (constantly) questioning children. Right now they’re living in the heart of Mormonland where she serves in the YW.
“Do we care what’s true? Does it matter?”Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
I’d like to think of myself as a truth seeker. I can’t imagine many people would actually answer “no” to Sagan’s question – but we’ve been pretty reckless with the truth lately (and not-so-lately). Like anyone else, I can be blinded by bias and self-interest in my pursuit of truth, but I do care, deeply, what is true. It matters to me.
Like many Mormons, my Mormonism-inspired commitment to the truth ultimately led me to reevaluate many LDS truth claims I long believed. More fundamentally, I’m reevaluating the process by which I came to believe those claims in the first place. What role can or should the spirit / feelings / intuition / our inner knowing / our gut / the Holy Ghost play in obtaining truth or making decisions?  Are there things that are knowable beyond what we can observe with our five senses? If so, what? And how can we put guardrails in place so that we don’t fall into the trap so many of us are in or seeing now – where whatever feels true is true, irrespective of the evidence?
I’ll state at the outset my bias: I do think there are things we can intuit or perceive or possibly know that go beyond our five senses. I’m a humanities girl and pretty spiritual, and lately trying to get more in touch with the feminine divine (which is definitely not a five-senses-only concept). I think limiting our world to what we can observe now is equal parts arrogant (as if our brains and senses and present understanding are capable of perceiving all of reality) and dismissive of our humanity (we’ve “known” things in many ways that do not involve observation for thousands of years). And, while I will get to the risks below, I don’t think it’s always harmful to see a spirit-filled world if that lens inspires us with a sense of wonder for nature and love for others.
I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reason and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?
You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.Mary Oliver, “The World I Live In“
What’s more, many experiences I’ve had that I might attribute to “the spirit” might actually be based in science–whether evolutionary psychology (instincts and behaviors) or quantum and particle physics (which is only just scratching the surface of understanding the ways we are related to each other and the universe at an atomic level). I’ve had experiences – synchronicities – where I have been clearly prompted to give someone a call or drop something off and later learned there was a good reason for that. Maybe that was the spirit, or maybe that was just our particles communicating on a subatomic level.  Either way, it wasn’t my five senses, but it was real – and good, not harm, came of it.  I have felt connected to people and places in ways that my senses cannot (yet) explain.
Finally, some of my life’s most important decisions have been based, ultimately, on a gut feeling. Some things I’ve done on a whim—like I woke up with the idea in my head and knew I needed to do something, and it turned out to be life-changing. For other big decisions, I would do my research and make my pros and cons lists, but those could only get me so far because I could not predict the future or because the lists were evenly balanced (for good or for bad). Sometimes we narrow down to the best options and then simply have to take a leap. I’ve taken some very good leaps based on my gut. The possibility of making my major decisions going forward without being able to trust, at least to an extent, that gut, terrifies me. Maybe I’m just in denial, but I’d like to believe there’s a place for that kind of “knowing” as I continue to navigate a complex world (and parent complex children!) that I can’t hope to fully understand.
That said, the last several years have changed my feelings … about my feelings. First, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are things I thought I “knew” based on feelings I thought were “the spirit” that I now believe to be false at worst and unknowable at best. It’s been shocking to realize that I went for decades ignoring problems that are now quite obvious to me.  Likewise, there are many things other people claim to “know” that I think are either blatantly false or obviously unknowable.
Second, I’ve learned a lot about how feelings or emotions are made. Emerging research suggests that emotions do not arise spontaneously from our brains in response to external stimuli but instead are created by our brains by a combination of stimuli and our brains’ predictions about that stimuli, which in turn is heavily influenced by our culture and pre-existing beliefs. In other words, we construct our own feelings.
Add to this the huge number of cognitive biases  we have – which will influence our brains’ predictions / responses to stimuli (such as evidence) and, in turn, how we feel about that evidence – and the extent we conflate emotional responses with “the spirit,” and feelings don’t seem to me to be particularly reliable indicators of external truth. Rather, they reflect and are constructed from our internal beliefs and predictions based on our culture and experience. This is why it does not surprise me at all that someone like Dallin Oaks feels so strongly about something like gay marriage even though I think he is dead wrong. His brain is constructing those feelings, and his brain has every incentive to feel the way he does about gay marriage based on his cognitive biases and personal history with the topic.
Third, I’m witnessing the fallout of the “post-truth” world we’re all living in where people decide not to get vaccinated against a preventable disease based on an answer to fasting and prayer (with no consultation with medical experts) and then die of that disease, or spread panic with QAnon nonsense that they believe because they “feel” like it is true, or storm the U.S. capital because they think the election has been “stolen” based on pure fabrication. We thought moral relativism was problematic? Alternative facts make moral relativism look like child’s play.
Although Carl Sagan wouldn’t have believed in prophecy, he certainly seems to have foreseen today in 1996 when he wrote:
“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of the very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”Carl Sagan
What are some of the results of this slide? Well, Sagan predicted we’d become a “nation of “suckers … up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.” Sound familiar? Sagan also warned of a pandemic, although here his prediction was a bit off: he feared that if science did not keep pace with diseases as they mutated, we would not be able to cure them. He did not foresee that what would actually happen is that we would refuse the cure. That was probably unthinkable to him.
This post-truth, anti-rational nightmare has caused me to reflect on the role that religion generally and LDS teachings specifically have played in getting us here (particularly given the high numbers of evangelicals and Mormons who believe some of the falsehoods I listed above). Sagan consistently maintained that religion and science need not be antithetical, but that too often religions are laboratories for pseudoscience and irrationality. And I can’t help but think of all of the irrational things I’ve thought and believed in my life rooted in our religious epistemology–which tells us that we can “know” things through the “spirit” which comes to us as “feelings.” Not only is this a faulty epistemology (at least with respect to certain kinds of knowledge), but I’m increasingly convinced it is dangerous to both personal and societal well-being when deployed in the wrong way.
What are some examples of the “wrong” way? Well for starters, I think it is problematic that we teach that people could come to a knowledge of whether a historical event did or did not occur based on “feelings.” Consider Glenn Pace’s 2007 General Conference talk “Do You Know?” in which he relates how as an 11-year old boy he came to know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God because he felt joy as he read a pamphlet describing Joseph Smith’s experience. No mention of actually looking at historical evidence surrounding the historical claims that substantiate Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims (one wonders whether some of what was in that pamphlet has since been discredited), or even positive fruits of Joseph Smith’s teachings (which I do think can be “evidence” of something’s goodness, albeit not evidence of the occurrence of non-occurrence of a historical event). I don’t know what kind of historian would rely on feelings to substantiate historical claims, but then again that is probably why the Church generally puts lawyers instead of professional historians at the head of the Church history department.
Worse yet is when we are told to ignore subject matter experts if their opinions contradict Church authorities. Dallin Oaks insists that “we should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth”, even about issues such as sexual orientation or gender identity, if they contradict the teachings of the Proclamation on the Family. Well, wouldn’t that include major medical organizations, none of which (with any credibility) agree with the Church’s claims that same-sex marriage is terrible for society or that homosexuality is an ailment to be cured in the afterlife? So then what would stop any good Mormon from deciding that bad feelings about a vaccine override the opinions of medical experts, with all their “secular prominence [and] authority,” when those feelings come from a higher, more reliable source than science?
All that leaves me wondering what role the spirit / inner knowing / intuition / gut / Holy Ghost might play in our decision-making and truth-seeking. I’ve described some examples where I think its use is faulty and dangerous, but also instances where it may not be. Are there ways we could teach the use of the spirit in a more defensible and healthier way?
Some thoughts & questions:
- What is the difference between the spirit and emotion? Could we describe the spirit in a more helpful way that would help people avoid conflating emotional responses with an inner knowing / intuition?
- Are there certain types of knowledge that fall pretty firmly in the camp of “not knowable by the spirit” that we ought to be excluding and others that might be more justifiably included? How about historical facts – is it responsible to teach people that they can know that Joseph Smith experienced certain events by how they feel when they hear these events recited? Or that they can know that various Book of Mormon characters were real people by how they feel when they read the book? Is there a better way we should teach people about how to learn about and gain value from historical events without teaching a problematic epistemology of knowing historical facts by how we feel when we hear them recited?
- What about medical decisions? (You’ll note I’m not saying “scientific facts” because science is not a set of facts, it’s a process.) Should I make medical decisions on how I feel about them? What if I do a lot of research, talk to a lot of doctors, and then ultimately make a decision based on the balance of the evidence and how I feel? I think the vaccine examples are one extreme, but many medical decisions are not black-and-white and people may face several potential choices and significant uncertainty.
- How about decisions about one’s personal future – like what job to take, whether and where to move, where to go to school? What is the balance there between facts and feelings? How could both be useful (or misleading)?
- Do you see any way out of the very serious problem we’ve gotten ourselves into as a Church when it comes to critical thinking and reliance on emotion as a reliable indicator of factual truth? Do you think the Church realizes this is an issue but doesn’t know how to unwind it, or do you think it wants people to continue relying on feelings because that’s the best way to keep people from leaving over historical issues?
 For simplicity I’ll use the term “the spirit” here but please interpret that as broadly as you need to for purposes of this discussion. While this is a topic for another day, I find the concept of an external voice, the Holy Ghost, that is given to us by a Church authority and that we are entitled to access only by obeying Church rules problematic for a number of reasons. To take an idea from John Larsen on an old Mormon Expressions podcast, to me it’s an example of religion taking what we already have (inner authority, divinity, conscience) and selling us back an inferior version (external authority that Church gets to mediate and put conditions on). This is why I’m speaking broadly when discussing “The Holy Ghost” and trying to capture diverse ways people might envision or access that concept.
 Rob Bell discusses the relationship between physics and his theology at length in his book Everything is Spiritual: “Everything is made of atoms, and atoms are made of particles, and particles are bits of energy that move in ways we have no categories for … All divisions take place within a unity. All parts exist within wholes. All wholes form one whole. Everything that appears to have nothing to do with everything else is, in the end, connected to everything else.” Or you can go straight to the source to learn more about this concept (Bell is no physicist and neither am I), there are numerous excellent On Being with Krista Tippett interviews with physicists that address similar concepts.
 Even Sagan wrote that “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. … The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
 I read Mormon Engima for a college course at a non-LDS university and somehow came away still not believing that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy or did anything problematic, I think due to a combination of (a) Emma’s denial of polygamy at the end of her life, and (b) praying about the first vision when I got confused / unsettled by things and “feeling good” about it. Folks, if people aren’t ready for information, they aren’t ready.
 This is a large topic that deserves a post of its own so I won’t go into detail here (and I think there are in fact a bunch of posts here on cognitive biases & how they manifest in the Church). But at a high level, and taking a framework from Brian McLaren’s Learning How to See podcast (which is only one of many resources for learning about the topic), some of the cognitive biases that I think hamper our ability to objectively evaluate religious experiences and claims in particular include confirmation bias, community bias, contact bias, conspiracy bias, and cash bias.
There’s so much here that we can talk about. I’ll only address a small part and let others do so as well.
Ever since I left the Church (a slow process that really accelerated in the last 18 months), I’ve discovered that I knew a lot less than I thought I did. What did I really know about LDS Church history? What did I really know about details surrounding the Church’s truth claims? And even though I was a seminary graduate, BYU graduate, return missionary, and former Gospel Doctrine instructor, what did I really know about the Church’s core doctrine? The answer to all of these questions was: NOT MUCH. And if I didn’t know much about that, what did I know about God himself (or herself)?
I’ve taken the time in the last couple of years to really try to know more about these questions. The more I discovered, the less I “knew”. And it occurred to me that in the Church we totally abuse the English language. We say “I know X” and “I know Y” when in fact we should be saying, without shame or embarrassment, “I believe ” and “I hope” and “I have faith that…”. I think that if every member the Church spoke that way we would be a much more humble and healthy group and the Church itself would be better off.
In the TBM world where I used to operate, it was seen as a sign of spiritual weakness if you did not “know” X, Y, and Z (i.e., Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, Russel M. Nelson, etc.) . You simply lacked faith or you were sinning if you did not “know”. You would simply state this as fact in a testimony meeting and it really was not up for discussion. Of course I believe differently today. But I still respect the folks who say “I believe or choose to have faith in X, Y, and Z”. But I have less respect for those who state with every fiber of their being that those things are true. There’s no way they could KNOW any of that.
I like stating that “I don’t know” about these things and I am very comfortable declaring to myself that I’m agnostic. This is an acknowledgement that I simply don’t know. In fact, I really admire others who claim to be agnostic because there’s a certain humility in saying so. I’m humble enough to admit that I’ve studied and prayed and I simply don’t know what I believe. I’m pretty certain that the LDS faith does not represent the “one true Church” but I’m very open minded about the nature of God and Jesus. If it turns out that the LDS version of the Trinity is indeed accurate, I’ll be delighted. If it is not, I won’t be surprised. But either way, I feel confident that if I meet my maker I’ll say with confidence that I was seeking the truth and I never arrived at ultimate conclusions. But as long as I was seeking, I hope that is seen as noble and correct, not weak and faithless.
I am doing cartwheels that we have a post from you, Elisa. So much here and I’ll try to keep it brief:
1. The fact that you ask the difference between spirit and emotion tells me you’re already thinking outside of the Mormon box. Yesterday during testimony meeting, a woman stood up, said that she felt love in her heart when she thought/prayed about a certain “truth”, then testified that that love was the Holy Ghost. As Mormons, we have a terrible time with this conflating of emotion and spirit. I think that conflation actually serves the purpose of our leaders (to keep everyone “in” no matter what kind of obfuscations have to take place) which is why I don’t see a lot of pushback or attempt to define the difference. I think we can define it in a helpful way, but to be fair, I do think it’s tricky. I’ve just finished writing a book on the role that embodied emotions could potentially play in Mormon aesthetics and there’s a ton of stuff out there now in the field of neuroscience that revolves around the issue of whether both emotions and so-called “religious” experiences are entirely the product of body chemistry and nervous system architecture. What if we admitted that spiritual impressions are subjective and not indicative of universal truths? That would get us out of one dilemma, but into another as Mormonism does this really weird thing where it takes absolutely individual and subjective experiences and then tries to universalize them into some sort of evidence of objective truth. That’s a true slippery slope.
2. You mention history several times in the questions at the end of your post and I think that’s a really important issue to address. Sadly, it’s one that the church mostly doesn’t, unless in some sort of apologetic way. To answer one of your questions, it is of course incredibly irresponsible to teach people that they can know the “truth” of Joseph’s experiences through “the spirit” when there is documented historical evidence to the contrary. One of the patterns of thought I’m noticing all over the place right now is that many people’s response to facts is to cloud the issue. Instead of saying, “yes, you’re right, it’s better to get a COVID vaccine,” they say, “well, where are you getting your information? We can’t really know for sure. I’m doing my own research. We’ll probably never really know the truth about all of this,” etc. ad infinitum. There’s a lot of that kind of language in the church. When confronted with facts that refute the church’s narrative, you’ll either get the whole, “the spirit witnessed the truth to me” line or you’ll get the “well, your sources are tainted. They just want to bring down the church. This is a matter of faith,” line of statements. Mormons do obfuscation and muddying the waters really well; they just use faith and vague references to spiritual experiences to do so. And the way the church won’t admit its own history just keeps that train rolling.
3. I think Mormons are uncomfortable with nuance and that’s why we’re seeing a lot of this stuff. As I’ve written in previous comments over the years, we like to sound very certain regarding things about which one cannot be certain. I think the church has come to value a kind of delusional certainty over nuance or a genuine and sincere wrestling with one’s faith. That’s now seen as either spiritual weakness or the beginnings of apostasy. Of course the sad part is that the Bible itself is full of nuance and uncertainties; we’re just so use to proof texting every verse in order to twist it to affirm Mormonism’s truth claims that we’ve robbed the scriptures of their subtlety and complexity. So no, I don’t think there’s a way out of this. The Mormon Church will continue to attract a few binary, black and white thinkers over the years, but they’ll lose all of the nuanced members. Will this lead to dwindling membership numbers? I suspect so, but I think it will take a while to make itself truly felt.
4. P.S. Mary Oliver came and gave a reading at my school about a dozen years ago. She was as humble and wise as one would expect.
Interesting post. Obviously some things I disagree with, but I’ll try to stick to your questions.
What is the difference between the Spirit and emotion?
I can only recall a very few times in my life in which I was taught the Spirit was just exclusively associated with feelings. The mind has generally been included in that as well. I study with my mind, then I’m told in both my mind and heart. Some of the greatest experiences I have ever had have felt as if pure intelligence was entering my mind. It’s as if I’m having a software upload specifically bypass my senses and enter the mind directly. Aside from the power and significance of the knowledge itself, there’s also a distinct sense of “this isn’t from you” present throughout the entire experience. One can argue this is a product of evolutionary science, but logic tells me there are so many more ways in which nature would allow us to survive, cope, and thrive. One could also argue this is a product of self-hypnosis, brain-washing, or indoctrination, but most of these experiences have resulted in a greater outlook on life and others, a thirst for knowledge, a greater sense of freedom, and an increase of humility (of which I suppose other evolutionary arguments could admittedly be made). Logic tells me the simplest explanation for these events are most likely due to a divine being allowing me to take part in a divine experience, for a divine purpose. I realize others could draw others conclusions with logic (or physics), which only furthers the idea for me that logic is only one component of our complex existence. To quote Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel, “A robot is logical, a human is reasonable.” I don’t think my outlook on life would be all that reasonable without my acknowledgement of the Spirit.
Are there certain types of knowledge that fall pretty firmly in the camp of “not knowable by the spirit” that we ought to be excluding and others that might be more justifiably included?
Not really. I suppose that would depend on how much pure intelligence the Spirit is willing to convey, and how much I’m willing to receive, even after all the studying and weighing of the facts. I’ve heard of others having experiences that make me borderline envious, but I’ll admit I’m content with much less.
What about medical decisions?
After doing as much research as possible in a variety of sciences that affect the human condition, I see no problem with also being informed by the intelligence and “feelings” that come from the Spirit. I would not presume or expect the Spirit to tell everyone else the same thing He tells me regarding my own personal situation.
How about decisions about one’s personal future – like what job to take, whether and where to move, where to go to school?
Same answer for the most part. But here’s the thing, the more I study things out and grow older, the more confident I am in my decisions regarding my future, though I try to remain teachable. If I’m going to feel the Spirit in His most distinct form, it would likely be to tell me the path I’m on IS NOT the correct one, rather than constantly try to reinforce what I likely already know. When that happens, I try harder to pause and listen.
Do you see any way out of the very serious problem we’ve gotten ourselves into as a Church when it comes to critical thinking and reliance on emotion as a reliable indicator of factual truth?
I don’t see it as a problem except for maybe a few. I think the real problem is not always acknowledging that someone who differs from us may very well have been informed by a variety of reliable sources, did quite a bit of critical thinking, and is still trying to make the best decision involving his or herself and those around them. I realize ignorance is a real problem and arguably an immoral quality. I think forcing a view or practice onto someone because we perceive ignorance is far more immoral.
To be fair, there may be some related truth to your last point (and post in general). Maybe members of the Church really aren’t doing all that good of a job teaching about the Spirit and its power, and all the work that comes beforehand. Perhaps we have become over reliant on just a shadow of what really could be. If that’s the case, mistakes will likely be made.
One problem I’ve seen with our Mormon reliance on feelings / the Spirit is that there’s also a tendency for overconfidence in gut instinct that leaks over into work life and politics and personal decision making. I actually think gut instinct is often good, but not when Dunning-Kreuger effect is at play or confirmation bias or personal prejudice or any other number of logical fallacies. I have known many church members (probably including me, if I’m honest) who conflate their own personal desires with “the spirit” telling them to do what they want to do anyway. It’s very difficult to tease out these differences and be critical in our thinking.
Great post Elisa. Really tricky subject.
On the one hand, I think you do need the Spirit to know the things of God. On the other hand, relying on emotions is unreliable, and you can easily have warm/strong feelings about things that are false.
There’s an amazing documentary film called “Kumare: the true story of a false prophet” It’s about a regular American guy posing as an Indian guru who starts a religious movement. You can rent it on Amazon Prime and it’s definitely worth watching. A lot of people follow him, based on the feelings that they have when they are around him and hear his teachings. I don’t want to spoil it…but I will anyways (so just stop reading if you don’t want it spoiled).
He doesn’t outright lie, he always tells people “I’m a fake guru, and you can be a guru too if you act like one.” But they take it as having a deeper meaning. In the end, when he reveals who he really is, some people are really angry and feel betrayed, and some people are still just really grateful for the goodness he’s brought into their lives. Their lives have been changed for the better because of him.
Robert Ebert praised the film saying, “It doesn’t matter if a religion’s teachings are true. What matters is if you think they are.”
It’s wild! And it caused me to think a lot about my relationship with the church, and I saw a lot of parallels with lds membership and Kumare’s followers. It also really shows how this phenomenon is not unique to the lds church. Across the world and most religions, people rely on their feelings to determine what is true (for better or worse). But I do think it gets amplified in the LDS church.
I don’t have any real answers- just that it’s a tricky subject.
I can’t remember where I heard it, but I once read something that basically proposed the idea that- A lot of the gospel truths are “unknowable” on purpose so that we are allowed to exercise faith. There are evidences for and against most things, so that we can (and have to) choose what we are going to believe. What we choose to believe reveals our heart and our character. And that is one major purpose of it all.
I dunno. It’s all very interesting to me.
Wonderful post, Elisa. I will ponder this and share more of my own thoughts on the matter a little later. But for now, I just want you to know how refreshing this is to read after enduring a banal and completely forgettable stake conference this past weekend. Brava!
Hölderlin: The Archipelago
Thanks, Elisa, for taking the time to post this. I loved Demon-Haunted World and it continues to exert influence. This reminds me that I need to read it again.
Is it responsible to teach people that they can know historical facts through an emotional experience? I think it is not responsible, nor is it intellectually honest, ethical, or efficacious as chickens eventually roost. For me, however, the promise that one could ‘know’ the truth of Smith’s teachings and the existence of BoM peoples was always tied to some future date whereupon concrete proof would bear out him and it. There was always going to be a day in the future when the evidence would be unearthed. Kerry Muhlestein pretty much still argues that there is so much Egyptological evidence in unsorted boxes around the world that one cannot say with any certainty that the Book of Abraham is historically untrue. We all know, of course, that the evidence in both cases has trended so much in the opposite direction that even the church itself has gradually moved away from the ‘historical accuracy’ and genuine translation arguments.
Years ago I would have argued that the church could slowly move the goal posts and it would survive just fine, thank you very much, because most people embedded in LDS culture and teachings don’t really question these kinds of things. But then “doing my own research” started and members called into question the reliability of a man they still call a prophet and it seemed more clear that the stampeding ignoramus movement in America might come for the Mormons, too. And so, I think, it has.
While Sagan considered himself an agnostic and thought that atheists championed an unknowable certainty about the nonexistence of something, I do think his argument for the coexistence of faith and logic/reason would have defined limitations. One could not, for example, call it logical to assume that a thought or idea came directly from a deity who wants to implant it, nor that individuals should trust their feelings over the well-reasoned scientific research of trained professionals. (He was a scientist, after all.) One might believe God inspired those professionals, but to think that God gives me information that he has withheld from people spending their lives in the service of something is to create a trickster God just having a laugh. Per John Constantine: “God’s a kid with an ant farm, lady. He’s not planning anything.”
I think many, many things are unknowable, but then 1000 years ago many, many MORE things were unknowable. Now, fewer things are, and we are trending toward knowledge, not ignorance, if we can accept what we’ve learned. The church has a critical thinking problem, yes, but then most churches do. Can the church navigate a way out of this period? No, I don’t think so, which is not to say the organization will collapse. That would take a long time, the church has a lot of money, and people have so many different reasons for remaining members that have nothing to do with a literal belief in the creation myths. The problem will be that the best and brightest will drift away and the church will become an intellectually bereft and disingenuous organization that spends most of its time making investment decisions. Oh, wait …
“Do you see any way out of the very serious problem we’ve gotten ourselves into as a Church when it comes to critical thinking and reliance on emotion as a reliable indicator of factual truth? ”
Mission story – I remember being taught that if we’ve gotten into a discussion that is turning argumentative, rather than continuing to argue, we should bear our testimonies. The power of testimony would shut down the argument, said the teachers. Well, yes it did. As a missionary, I thought people were silenced by the knowledge that I spoke the truth and the Holy Ghost was bearing witness to them. Since I’ve quit church, and have been on the receiving end of someone ending a discussion by bearing their testimony, I’ve learned that no one is actually spiritually in awe when you testify during a discussion. It’s just a way of signaling that the rational part of the argument is done and that ends things.
I don’t see the Church getting itself out of this one. They’ve been teaching that a strong emotional experience means the Church is true and the BoM is scripture for so long that unwinding that would send everyone into a faith crisis. Their biggest mistake was in teaching that the ‘strong emotional experience’ should apply to something other than spiritual truths. They could start walking that back, if they chose to do so. There would be a lot of pushback though, especially in today’s post-factual world. People don’t want to admit that something they feel strongly about is due to their own internal biases and opinions. Having an emotional experience that feels like you’ve connected to something transcendent is pretty hard to give up.
Great post. I recently tried to write something around the same topic and it didn’t come out nearly as well thought out and insightful. Thanks Elisa.
One thing I would throw in is that whether you call it emotion or the spirit, functionally it means activation of the limbic part of the nervous system, and I think there is evidence that for some sorts of decision that the frontal cortex absolutely needs inputs from the limbic system (what meal to pick at a restaurant, what day of the week to go to a therapist appointment, or who we marry), so we probably do need to use “gut instinct” even for what might be considered rational decisions. And I think we typically use limbic input when we are staring face to face with someone and trying to tell if they are telling the truth. (Of course, if Malcom Gladwell’s Talking with Strangers is to be believed, we aren’t very good at detecting deliberate deception even with all the cues available.) So perhaps its not surprising that we try to use emotion or the spirit to also judge the validity of a story we are reading that we are told objectively happened. But probably not terribly reliable if we use emotion to counter significant contradictory evidence.
“What is the difference between the spirit and emotion?”
Gospel Doctrine story – I was teaching a lesson about recognizing the spirit and I drew a Venn diagram on the chalkboard. One circle labeled “the spirit” and the other circle labeled “emotions.” There was barely any overlap between them. I explained that my spiritual experiences rarely involve my emotions, so I’ve always been able to tell the difference. Others chimed into the discussion, and I found out how very unusual I was. Most of the commenters said their Venn diagram would practically be a circle. Spiritual experiences and emotional experiences were basically the same thing for most people. Of course I’d heard that before – several speakers have tried to explain the difference between our emotions and the spirit, and I’d always wondered why people couldn’t tell the difference as easily as I could.
The reason it was easy for me to distinguish between emotion and the spirit is because my emotions were always wrong. If I felt something, I knew I was wrong to feel that way. If I acted on my feelings, something bad would happen. I always misinterpreted, or overreacted, or just couldn’t understand why people acted the way they did. I was an awkward person – superficially pleasant, but I avoided close friendships so no one would notice that there was something wrong with me. My entire life was a facade.
At the GD lesson, I was still almost a decade away from identifying the really dysfunctional patterns in the family I grew up in. My emotions were broken because of my home environment. I had zero ability to trust anyone, and I’d been suicidal for so long that it surprised me when, in my early 20s, someone said something that made me realize that most people aren’t suicidal. I had no idea that most people actually enjoy living.
My spiritual experiences matched what Eli said: “Some of the greatest experiences I have ever had have felt as if pure intelligence was entering my mind. It’s as if I’m having a software upload specifically bypass my senses and enter the mind directly. Aside from the power and significance of the knowledge itself, there’s also a distinct sense of “this isn’t from you” present throughout the entire experience.”
That’s exactly what it was like. Something radically different from my regular thoughts would simply pour into me, and then reshape my mind/spirit so completely that if I didn’t write down the experience immediately, I would forget it because within a day, it was as if I’d always known what I’d just been taught. I had experiences that helped me heal from abuse, taught me the true nature of God (it turns out he’s not one bit like my father), and one especially vivid experience that answered the practical question of where to live. Every time, the experience drew me closer to mental health and made it easier to interact with people. They expanded the best of me.
Those have eased off as I’ve healed. I’ve learned to trust my emotions again. I don’t need the radical spiritual guidance I used to get. I feel like I’ve matured emotionally, and God doesn’t need to step in so obviously anymore.
A genuine spiritual experience makes you stronger, more compassionate, more able to connect with good people, enough energy to help someone else, there’s an awe at the breadth and depth of life and truth and an eagerness to see what comes next in life. There’s not really a word to describe it, but life feels about 50 times more real in the best way.
@Josh H – it is a bit humbling / humiliating to realize how much you thought you knew that you don’t, right? I’m in the same boat. But more often than not, I think it’s exhilarating to be able to explore and learn without being so closed off to information that might unsettle my sure testimony like I used to be. The opposite of fear is curiosity, and I’m loving reading widely from history, the social sciences, etc. etc. without having to fit it into a Church box.
@Brother Sky – I want to hear more from you on emotion & neuroscience! I don’t think the fact that the limbic system is involved in what we call the “spirit” necessarily means the spirit is a meaningless concept – might just be science explaining the spirit – but certainly it is complicated given what we are learning about how our brains interact with our emotions. They aren’t independent of our thoughts and biases, that’s for sure.
@Eli – you and I definitely agree that there’s a role for the spirit at some level. As for “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart,” how do you tease out cognitive bias and the relationships between our mind and hearts? That’s what I think is really tricky here. It’s like @Angela points out – it’s easy to conflate personal desires with the spirit.
I agree with you on medical decisions and others. I have made medical decisions – after weighing evidence and options – based on what seemed right (again, these decisions were MUCH more complicated than whether or not to get vaccinated). Not sure I agree on history. As I mentioned, I think we can ascertain whether something is *good* based on the spirit (so maybe a capital T truth), but not whether a historical event did or did not occur.
@aporetic1, I used to believe in the whole choose to believe thing. William James has a whole “The Will to Believe” essay I read as a freshman in a theology class (taught by a Catholic priest) that was very influential to me. I think I still believe that when it comes to belief in God overall, but as for a lot of truth claims beyond that, I don’t think I can “choose” to believe them anymore than I can “choose” to forget something I saw or read that made those beliefs unbelievable or untenable to me. Still, though, I admit there is still a lot of choice involved as we tend to believe things that are convenient for us to believe (and convenient can mean many things … see the list of cognitive biases in the footnote).
@jaredsbrother, agree with your take on Sagan (and that in the past we all thought the Church was going to be proved through evidence someday…). Demon Haunted World is SO good for helping one think more clearly.
@Janey – hah! That’s quite the reframe of testifying but you’re onto something.
@10AC, there is a lot more on emotion & I know Malcolm Gladwell has written on it (Blink, right? Plus there’s Thinking Fast and Slow), but I’m not as familiar with that stuff so left it out. Would love to hear more on that, though. I do think, though, that I learned somewhere that we are absolutely *terrible* at telling when people are lying, but we think that we are good at it. Makes up really susceptible to being conned. Including (especially?) in religious settings where we are more inclined to trust.
@Janey – I responded before I read your second comment, but I love this: “A genuine spiritual experience makes you stronger, more compassionate, more able to connect with good people, enough energy to help someone else, there’s an awe at the breadth and depth of life and truth and an eagerness to see what comes next in life. There’s not really a word to describe it, but life feels about 50 times more real in the best way.”
Even if that’s not a genuine spiritual experience (although I think it meets the definition if you’re looking at Galatians / fruits of the spirit), that certainly seems worth seeking & following. As opposed to when people claim the “spirit” is telling them to like, throw out their gay family members.
Great post Elisa. I loved Carl Sagan as a boy growing up and have shared his works with my children. The Demon Haunted World is so accessible–I have given it to many friends who struggle to sort through discerning fact from fiction and cogency from fallacy. My kids also became fans of his books including DHW, Cosmos, The Pale Blue Dot and Contact. My kids, like me, are more rooted in rationalism than spiritualism, even as religiously yearning people.
This is a complicated subject to take apart and understand. The best I can do is add a few personal vignettes of my thinking on the topic.
*Part of the problem within Mormonism, in my view, is we lack a theology. We have never put effort into constructing a coherent theology. As a result, spiritual epistemology has as many meanings as there are members. I have listened to members talk in GD or quorum meetings about how “the spirit” undeniably told them to, as one example, start a business. The business failed and the member was left trying to work out why God would inspire them to do something that was destined to fail and financially ruin them. I would argue there are all kinds of problems with this kind of thinking and belief, but we don’t have a clear theology that helps members tease apart these kinds of experiences and make clearer sense of them. Using my own theology, I don’t outsource the decision making of my life to the spirit–it’s my job to figure out. Rather, I rely on the spirit to help me be a moral agent regardless of what I’m doing day-to-day. And I will seek solace and strength in the spirit if my business fails–even in spite of my business failing–while I recognize god has nothing to do with it. But god might have everything to do with my seeking his divine guidance in how I treat others and live, even in the face of my own failure. The snarky part of me would say I think we (most Mormons) are lazy when it comes to making the most important decisions of our lives and instead of doing the hard work, the research, fact finding and gaining a greater sense of self awareness, we outsource “knowing” to god. The epistemic methods we use are just as baffling and flawed: Let the scriptures fall open and evidently our answer is supposed to be where our finger lands on the page. I’ve always thought that was preposterous. However, I’ve heard this method of divine guidance promoted by a member of the high council a few years ago. It’s crazy.
*I think it was Harold Bloom who wrote in his book The American Religion–and I’m taking big, big liberties here with my ability to accurately recall what I read–that it was a shame Joseph Smith died so young and wasn’t able to finish his theology, that Mormon theology was inventive and creative, even if it made no sense at all! He juxtaposed it with the Baptists and basically said by comparison they were theologically bankrupt, bereft of any thinking at all. Sadly, Brigham Young said a lot theologically but most of what he said landed in Crazytown. Mormonism’s own version of Paul Tillich, for example, has never emerged, probably because church leaders became and have remained so entrenched in the devotional model even early in the twentieth century. Recently I’ve been reading about the history of education in the church and I am amazed by the quality of work our members did who studied at the University of Chicago’s divinity school in the 1910’s, 20’s and 30’s. They could have saved us so much pain had the hierarchy listened. They were discovering our rhetoric did not match up against history. They worked to help the church, and especially our missionaries, avoid the kind of embarrassment that results from being plainly ignorant. Then along came J. Ruben Clark. We had clear opportunities to bring more balance to the role rationalism can play in our spiritual belief system 100 years ago. Religious belief always has to reconcile with scientific understanding. The degree of tension in that process is dependent on the religion’s ability to theologically absorb clearer views of reality. I fear we have failed to develop any kind of theological ambidexterity. As a result, we muddle about truly confused. Was that Satan whispering in my head? How do I know if it’s the Holy Ghost or Satan? Actual question posited in my EQ two years ago. We should be well beyond spinning in circles with questions like these.
*I grew up attending other churches with my friends, most of whom came from a variety of religious traditions. I never felt comfortable at any evangelical service. Experiencing rapture, seeing people speak in tongues (yep), watching people jump up out of the pew to be saved because the preacher was speaking with the fire of god…do you feel it? None of it moved me because it felt so capricious and contrived. The mainliners I could understand, however, and they spoke to my soul and my mind. I enjoyed Lutheran and Episcopalian services the most. They were reasoned and I always felt like I left inspired to be a better person, more forgiving of myself and others, and actually having learned about the nature of god–their homilies made me feel the warmth and goodness of god. That is my bias. When I was young I always hoped my church, the Mormon church, would move more in the direction of mainline Protestantism than Evangelism. Sadly, it feels like we are becoming fully evangelical. The theological clarity, the reconciliations with our history and a more full embracing of spiritual rationalism don’t seem, to me, to be anywhere on the horizon. In fact, we are moving in the opposite direction. Because of this, the church offers me very little insight into spiritual epistemology, what it is and what it should mean to me as a matter of religious and personal-spiritual practice.
@BigSky, your comment on decisions reminds me of an experience recounted by both Matt and Jeffrey Holland regarding a revelation they received to go down a … wrong … road. OK.
Thanks for the post, Elisa. I’ve regularly enjoyed your comments on here. This post is another good one touching on a very important topic not discussed at church or among believers.
When I ask believers where the evidence is for the Book of Mormon, they say that they felt the spirit tell them so. In addition, they will appeal to the notion that there are lots of smart people who believe it’s true, therefore it must be true. There are problems with both points. On the second point, they often fail to realize that the larger body of intellectuals and experts on pre-Columbian American history overwhelmingly reject the notion of the practice of Judaism and Christianity in the pre-Columbian Americas. Hence the appeal to the BOM’s historicity on merit is moot. It can’t pass muster in the wider body of non-Mormon scholarship. On the first point (feeling), the issue arises over whether they’ve asked God whether the claims of other religions are true. Some of the sneakier more clever apologists will answer by saying that they believe that there is truth is all religions and that they believe that Mormonism simply has a fullness of truth. I ask about the Quran and they reply, “yes the Quran has truth in it” (right, when is the last time that you stood up in F&T meeting and bore solemn witness of the truthfulness of the Quran and the prophethood of Muhammad). Then I ask, “what about Warren Jeffs?” Is there truth is the FLDS religion? For I’ve heard members of the FLDS congregation on video give a “testimony” in pretty much the same format as we hear in the LDS church every first Sunday of the month, of the prophethood of Warren Jeffs. Someone has to be wrong in their feelings here. It can’t be the spirit testifying to one person that Warren Jeffs is the true prophet while testifying to another person that Russell M. Nelson is the true prophet. Also what’s to say that I’m wrong if I just up and declare to have had a strong indescribable overpowering feeling from the spirit (in an experience that is just too sacred to share) that Mormonism is a false religion? Would believers say that that feeling came from Satan? What’s to say that their feeling that Mormonism is true wasn’t inspired by Satan?
Another interesting point is how it is believed and talked about in Mormonism how Satan can deceive. Satan can appear as an angel of light. Dallin H. Oaks talked about in a conference address how feelings of inspiration can come from the devil. How do you tell the two apart? Pray more? It is unclear. David Whitmer said that Joseph Smith claimed to have received revelation from the devil when he failed to sell the copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada (of course, apologists perform contortionistic feats of mental gymnastics to explain this away claiming that Whitmer said this many years later, therefore it is unreliable, all while claiming the reliability of accounts of events happening decades earlier in the same breath). Even if Whitmer is remembering this event incorrectly or exaggerating the story, belief of the devil’s power to trick people is most certainly a thing in Mormonism. Yet is unclear how people are supposed to know they’ve been tricked.
Great post, Elisa. You gave up some precious time for sleep or leisure for our benefit, as do all of our regular W&T authors. Thanks to each of you as always.
I struggle to define the difference between spirit and emotion/feelings that would apply to everyone or work for every decision or circumstance. I think that’s precisely the problem. Either specific definitions that aren’t universal, or broad definitions that don’t mean anything substantive to the individual.
I think each person gets the right to make decisions (particularly personal life decisions) based on the criteria and influence they deem appropriate, to learn from that process, and change their approach over time and based on circumstances. When we embrace growth and aren’t afraid of the learning process, we actually progress.
A solution? Perhaps we stop trying to “prove” spiritual things or claim to “know” so many things through spirit/feelings? The Church will not and cannot give up that formula because it is the cheapest way to obedience and loyalty.
When the point of our church and meetings shifts from reassuring ourselves that we are the one and only, and instead seeks true worship of the divine and blessing humanity in the here and now, we can then accurately describe ourselves as saints.
@John W, I think according to Oaks you know you’ve been tricked if your revelation contradicts what the Brethren say. So, not sure what use personal revelation is in that case …
@Counselor, not to get us too far off track (since I’m the one who laid the track …) but this paragraph struck me in light of the absolutely atrocious Brad Wilcox talk I just listened that’s making the rounds on the internet, where he did, well, exactly what you say prevents us from being true saints (and otherwise embodies a lot of the points in my post about emotion vs. reason): “When the point of our church and meetings shifts from reassuring ourselves that we are the one and only, and instead seeks true worship of the divine and blessing humanity in the here and now, we can then accurately describe ourselves as saints.”
@Elisa, I know that story too, but struggle to extrapolate it to my own lived experiences, and struggle to know how I would teach it without running into several problems. It’s one reason why I dislike these kinds of anecdotes because I don’t really know what they mean to my own sense of spiritual knowing. I get the general principle that god’s inspiration can be born out of paradoxical experiences, but as I try to apply their story as a spiritually epistemological imperative, I run into several problems. I will clarify that I believe god can certainly consecrate a decision after we have done our diligence, and that we ought to seek that assurance. They had a map, they worked to know where to go. That I can accept and in that way I don’t think we are too far apart. But as a theological imperative, I struggle to generalize the lesson their anecdote is designed to teach. In that way it doesn’t have practical impact to me. If that makes sense.
In the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series on Joseph Fielding Smith, there was a lesson with which I disagreed. I told my HP quorum at the time I felt the lesson authors did us a disservice because of details they probably omitted in their zeal to make a strong point about listening to the spirit. The story was about JFS dropping off his teenage son and having an uneasy feeling about his son’s behavior. He drove away from the school but the prompting didn’t leave him so he turned around and lapped the school only to find his son with a shady kid and it looked like they were just about ready to light a cigarette. The story highlighted listening to the spirit. My objection is the lesson told us nothing about JFS’s relationship with his son. What other warning signs did he see? What was his son’s behavior in the preceding weeks and months? How did he know the kid he was with was shady? It seemed like JSF knew who he was. I told my quorum the problem I had with the story is that by omitting these other details we may be led to believe staying close to our children, communicating effectively with them and having a sense of where they are at is not necessary, that the spirit would tell us when they were headed for trouble and what we should do at the exact moment intervention is needed. I asked the quorum if they believed that. Of course they didn’t. The lesson didn’t do anything to imply the importance of knowing by observation, by using skill in communication, by relationship with the son. It felt like the lesson was in a way misleading in that regard. It was true to Mormon spiritualism, but I don’t think the story was particularly helpful if we asked the question how do we help our teens avoid trouble? It’s not that I’m denying the role of the spirit and paying attention to its whisperings as much as I think many of our stories about inspiration lack the entire story and fail to give enough credit to that which we can control and should take responsibility for.
@p … I did look that up to read but it’s long so haven’t gotten thru it yet. Maybe you’ll come back to give us more insight on it 🙂
Fascinating topic, Elisa – though I see you took the easy way out on your first (?) official w&t post by merely writing about epistemology (joking, of course). You asked whether it was reasonable for one to claim historical knowledge based on a “spiritual” experience, feeling and so on. I would say absolutely not, but in terms of church “history,” I don’t think historical research would be of much help either. I say this because when people refer to Church history they are typically referring to a series of claimed supernatural events. History (as a discipline) can do many things, but verifying theophanies and angelic visitations is not one of them. Even if 11 other people claimed to witness the first vision (or golden plates?), that wouldn’t convince historians that it actually happened. In this sense, I think the church has some grounds for knowing by feeling – or at least belief or faith by feeling.
Of course, I think what you were getting at is that the church has deliberately hidden or whitewashed portions of church history that are actually verifiable but are just a bit inconvenient. Joseph could never seem to get his story straight about who visited when, who else was there, what they said, what authority he was given etc. We don’t even know if he actually went into those woods behind the Smith home. We have no contemporaneous personal account. Historians like primary documents, and unfortunately Joseph wasn’t much of a journaler. What we can piece together, however, doesn’t give us much confidence that the dominant narrative is the correct one.
Here is the problem though, as I see it anyway. TBM’s don’t care – history is “boring,” unless they’re counting shingles on the Kirkland temple, apologists emphasize the ambiguity and use it to their advantage, and legitimate historians of religion, assume Js made it all up, but don’t care. They are not after truth claims. They want to know what it all means. How does the restoration movement fit in with communitarianism, politics, race, gender etc. Historians of religion don’t care if what people believe is “True.” – whatever that really means. They want to know why they believe it and how that belief informs their imprint on their environment (if every sense of that word). Mormon history is a vibrant field, though in many ways it’s lacking in public outreach – just scholars talking to each other (I’m not one of them, to be very clear – no graduate degree).
I guess the point I’m trying to make is the best scholarship on mormon history is fascinating and engaging but has no use for big T – truth (which is good, in my opinion). The church has begun to realize this, so it has opened up the archives more and more. They are not to worried about the occasional “hit piece” that most won’t take seriously. They seem fairly confident that they can ride the ambiguity train indefinitely while encouraging members to rely on the spirit to verify important historical (supernatural) events. And church historical sites and tours (and related publications) will continue to provide enough infotainment to keep the shingle counters happy.
You’re right re history and super naturalism. I guess I’m thinking mainly in terms of witness credibility, contradictory accounts, etc that would lend credibility or not to an account. For example do I find it credible that JS had some kind of mystical experience? Sure, maybe. Do I find it credible that it’s as described in the official account? Nope. Do I think the account of the priesthood restoration is credible? Definitely nope. (And guess what? I like the earliest first vision account best! Maybe it’s not true but it seems True in some ways! And so many of our problems stem from our exclusive priesthood claims! So I hate that we attach so much meaning to stories that probably aren’t even true OR True!).
I absolutely agree that the better angle is to treat these as theologically significant (True) but our truth claims and authority are so wrapped up in them that we just insist that they happened as described (true) and that we can “know” that because we feel good about them. And I think that’s extremely problematic. I think we need to admit no one can know exactly what happened when and where but hey what good can we glean and what are the good fruits? (And where there are bad fruits … let’s just jettison it already.)
I didn’t get to it much in today’s edition of epistemology 101 except in passing, but I am a pretty big believer in fruits as evidence of goodness.
@Elisa, I’ll agree with you that choosing does seem to work mostly in terms of unknowable concepts like if there is a God. I don’t know that one should (or should have to) choose to believe in historical events or not.
One other thought related to the subject of this post. On the recent post “Do you believe in miracles” I voiced that I don’t really think that God intervenes directly. But I am open to the idea of him intervening through the Spirit (thoughts and feelings). In the Bible Dictionary under prayer it says “The object of prayer is… to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that we must ask for in order to obtain.” I honestly don’t know of many things that fall into that category. Under those conditions I come up with- forgiveness of sins, and charity. And probably… guidance to find answers to spiritual questions, and guidance in major life decisions. If there is a God who hears and answers our prayers, I figure it’s probably done through thoughts and feelings most of the time. But that still doesn’t answer the question of this post about how to know what’s coming from God and what isn’t. But I do tend to trust my gut. I do think there is something to that in certain circumstances.
It’s worth noting that the current prevalence of “Spirit talk” in LDS discourse, and the heavy reliance on Spirit confirmation for testimony building, is not baked into the LDS gospel. In the 20th century, there was a lot more reliance on scriptures, evidence, and reasoning. Looking back, you may not think the evidence cited in earlier LDS discussion is necessarily reliable and you may not buy the reasoning, but it was the right kind of discussion. If that’s how you approach important questions, then you will be inclined to look for better evidence and employ better reasoning and end up with better thinking and better conclusions.
It wasn’t until the rise of Correlation and LDS neo-orthodoxy and Elder McConkie in the last third of the 20th century that feelings came to the fore and thinking/reasoning moved to the margins in LDS discourse and curriculum. I think the anti-science approach of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie was part of the same process. Well, the chickens have come home to roost now, with the sudden emergence of a huge cadre of anti-vax, anti-science, pro-Trump Mormons. President Nelson tells them to wear masks (not much tougher than looking at a brazen serpent on a staff) and most of them say no. After all the LDS fear-mongering about Communism and feminism and liberalism, it’s right-wing politics and conservative know-nothingism (that LDS leaders tolerated and even encouraged) that is going to kill the Church.
Elisa, you’re right about Oaks saying that people can’t be receiving real personal revelation from God if what they are experiencing is out of line with what the Q15 are saying. Here is the quote from his October 2010 address:
“Similarly, we cannot communicate reliably through the direct, personal line if we are disobedient to or out of harmony with the priesthood line. The Lord has declared that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:36). Unfortunately, it is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.”
And there you have it. The devil also gives revelation and inspiration. How? Through some sort of spirit medium, I’m guessing that isn’t the Holy Spirit? It is unclear. The devil possesses similar powers to those of the Godhead. How he/she (is it taboo to call the devil a she in the same way that it is taboo to call God a she?) derived these powers, it is unclear. Suffice it to say, if the devil is giving revelation that seems like God’s revelation, then what is the point of seeking personal revelation at all if you can be tricked like this? It doesn’t make sense. Here, Dallin Oaks is simply telling people that their seeking of personal revelation is pointless and that people should blindly follow the Q15. Church leaders object to claims that their asking members and others to blindly follow them. But they regularly ask this. It may be indirect, but they regularly ask it.
@Dave B, growing up I always felt that Mormonism was quite intellectual and made so much room for faith and science to co-exist. I never had any issues with evolution, science, etc. – now I didn’t totally have it worked out in my head how that worked, but I didn’t have a problem with it. So I’ve been shocked to hear that students at our high school’s seminary are learning that evolution isn’t real, etc. etc. – I’m like, what? Now? And of course now what we are seeing with an abandonment of reason.
So this retrenchment to fundamentalism has shocked me, but you’re probably right that it’s been a while coming (and is part of a broader movement in Christianity / modernity that arose when biblical scholarship started to pick apart the bible – but again, that’s so unnecessary because the bible never purported to be what fundamentalists claim it is!). I wonder if part of it is @jaredsbrother’s point that for a long time we were convinced that science and reason would eventually “prove” Mormonism so we didn’t have to put in with the evangelicals and could be more intellectual. As they haven’t, we’ve retreated from reason and increasingly relied on appeals to the spirit and, more important perhaps, authority. (Sagan also harshly criticizes any argument whose appeal is to authority alone …).
(the relationship between spirit and authority is interesting too. We focus so much on authority, and then say “but you can know for yourself,” but as we know – we are wired to get confirmations of what we already think is going to be true & what is socially convenient for us – so if we are conditioned to believe authority, and to be afraid to come to a conclusion different from what authority says because it puts us at odds with our community, well, you get my drift. But I have a post in mind on authority!)
@John W, that’s exactly what I’m getting at with footnote  re: the Church takes what we already have (inner guide, gut, intuition, whatever – our divine heritage IMO) and sells us back an inferior version (a version that is channeled through their priesthood line of authority, that we can only access if we follow their rules, and that cannot contradict what they say). We are such suckers!!!
Elisa asked “As for “I will tell you in your mind and in your heart,” how do you tease out cognitive bias and the relationships between our mind and hearts? “
Fair question. Many of these greatest experiences did occur when I half-expected them (though the intensity and clarity often exceeded my expectations), but many of them also occurred when I least expected them. I suppose one could make a case for “subconscious cognitive bias,” but for me, the mental gymnastics eventually fail against the logic of divine communication. Believing the way I do is reasonable for me, but I can understand how it wouldn’t be for another.
As for the relationship between the heart and mind, that’s a little more complicated. I’ve often felt the mind convinces the heart (hence the aftermath of the intelligence received), but I suppose the opposite can occur from time to time. I generally try to have a decision grounded in both.
@Eli, I agree that sometimes when things seem unexpected it can be an indication that they come outside of our biases. That doesn’t always work (people with a lot of anxiety / OCD come to mind) but it can. Some of my big answers were the ones I didn’t expect and that’s part of why I listened.
I was taught that having spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon proves that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that all the other truth claims of the church are true. I do feel that I have had unexplainable spiritual experiences where I have connected with the Divine while participating in Mormonism. Since my faith transition and learning a more real (and sometimes unflattering) version of Mormon history, I have had to reframe my understanding of those spiritual experiences. While I do not think that those spiritual experiences prove the truth claims of the church, I do feel that Mormonism can provide ways to connect with the Divine. I wish that our church leaders would talk about spiritual experiences with more nuance and without using them as a tool to prove truth claims. I think our young people would love to find ways to connect with the Divine. The younger generation has the internet and the tactics I grew up with don’t seem to be working very well for them.
Thanks Elisa. Like you, I grew up appreciating the intellectual, logical aspects of Mormonism, that didn’t contradict science but actually complimented it, and reinforced the idea that there was some sense of order and organization to the vast and largely unknown universe. I’ve never been a “feelings” guy, or a very spiritual person at all for that matter. That part of church never really made sense to me. Even as a kid, I remember sitting through testimony meetings, watching as a parade of my parents’ friends (normally stable, functional people) took turns telling mundane personal stories interspersed with incoherent sobbing, and the whole thing baffled me. I often thought: Why would anyone want to take part in this crazyness? Is this how “the spirit” actually works? If I don’t have the desire to spill my guts in public while crying, is there something wrong with me? I took some comfort knowing that there were a few others like me, such as my dad, who once told me, “Anyone who says ‘the Church is true’ is lying, mostly to themselves and to God. It’s the Gospel that’s true, not the Church!” For me, being a Mormon was never really about feelings, and to me that feels more and more unusual.
Also, as a newly-endowed young adult, I remember being fascinated with the creation aspects of the temple endowment, while at the same time being weirded out by the ritual aspects. If I had solely trusted my feelings as a guide to whether that experience was “true” in that moment, I would have never gone back after the first time.
I too have noticed the recent trend in the Church of reason and logic being pushed aside in favor of appeals to emotion and authority, which I find distasteful, and the approach makes church less and less enjoyable. I’m not sure if it’s just the LDS Church or if it’s also a problem of the religious right in general.
This discussion also reminds me of a certain inflammatory slogan currently popular in far-right circles, “F**k your feelings!” which ironically I feel like shouting out in response to each testimony borne on fast Sunday. The slogan is also ironic considering the far-right political factions who use it are fueled largely by appeals to emotion.
If you’re interested, I’d take a look at Patrick McNamara’s The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. It’s a good book; well-researched and I like McNamara’s intellectual humility. He acknowledges right off the bat that while cognitive neuroscience has a lot to teach those who study religion, religion also has a lot to teach cognitive neuroscientists. One of the points he makes that I find particularly fascinating is that there is considerable “anatomical overlap” between the places in the brain implicated in religious experience and the places in the brain implicated in the sense of Self and self-consciousness. Really cool stuff.
I like the comparison of spirituality to senses.
– we know that senses can be fooled, like optical illusions and such
– not everyone experiences senses the same way. People taste and smell things differently.
– we do not generally expect people to disregard their senses, although we may point out where we think their senses are deceiving them.
If spirituality is similar to a sense, we should recognize that some spiritual experiences are nearly universal, like the value of human life, and some are highly subjective.
Where feelings are concerned, I will say that I cannot distinguish feelings from what LDS folk refer to as the spirit. I just can’t. But that’s just me.
@Cindy – 100%.
Cindy brought this up and I want to expand on it: “I was taught that having spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon proves that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that all the other truth claims of the church are true.”
One of the ‘missionary skills’ is HOFERS – Help Other Feel and Recognize the Spirit. We did this by asking investigators how they felt, and if it was a pleasant feeling, we would tell them that was the spirit. “Oh! you felt peaceful and calm at church? That’s the Holy Ghost telling you it’s true!”
“Did you pray? How did you feel? That good feeling means that everything we’ve said is true and now you should live your life according to all the rules we have that you don’t even know about yet.”
It’s a long way from “I felt welcomed at church” to “I should accept every bit of this religion and all its rules” but we happily made the leap for our investigators.
When someone feels happy and peaceful, that just means they’re enjoying something. We shouldn’t have pushed the meaning of that feeling into a spiritual experience that somehow required a lifetime commitment to a religion they’d barely begun learning about.
I’ve really had to re-frame my mission in recent years, and interpreting peoples’ feelings for them is something I wish I could undo.
This has been a really thought-provoking post, Elisa, thank you.
Awesome post, Elisa. Awesome comments, everyone.
Honestly, I have to be careful with Sagan because my Mormon instinct to revere prophetic figures starts to kick in if I listen to him speak too much. (I mean, he actually predicted things that came true! How many of our prophets can say the same?) Seriously though, what an amazing writer and speaker. And veneration is the last thing he would have wanted.
The most powerful experiences I’ve had with The Spirit match the description of the Elevation Emotion—a powerful feeling of joy and oneness with something greater. From what I understand, there are at least two fairly reliable ways to trigger this emotion in people: 1) LSD and 2) witnessing/contemplating acts of poignant altruism. Since Jesus’ atonement constitutes the supreme act of altruism, it makes sense that contemplating his sacrifice would trigger this emotion in people. What’s interesting to me is the way this intensifies in direct relation to our personal sense of shame: the more disgusting we are, the greater Jesus’ condescension for us is, therefore the greater the emotional response.
I think, on the whole, Elevation experiences are a gift and make us better. But the way they have the potential to weaponize shame is concerning. Smarter people than me should look into it (and probably already have and I just need to read more).
@kirkstall, yes, agreed – if elevation experienced connect us to humanity and help us feel more love and inspired to do good, great!
I think the problem is when feelings are misused to bolster authority claims and power, which makes no sense to me at all anymore.