"Inner happiness and serviceability do not always agree. What immediately feels most 'good' is not always most 'true,' when measured by the verdict of the rest of experience. The difference between Philip drunk and Philip sober is the classic instance of corroboration. If merely 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."
-William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (p. 26)
Foundations of Mormon Spiritual Experience:
Moroni 10:3-5 teaches a principle that every Mormon learns at one time or another. As you faithfully and sincerely 'search, ponder, and pray' you will know the truth of any matter "by the power of the Holy Ghost."
"And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."
Furthermore, we are taught to recognize the power of the Holy Ghost in the form of profound emotional/spiritual experiences. Both Doctrine and Covenants 85:6 and 1 Kings 19:12 refer to a witness from God in the form of "a still small voice." In Galatians 5:22 the apostle Paul associates the spirit with the feelings of love, joy, and peace. Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 identifies the spirit with a burning in the bosom:
"behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right."
Similarly, in Luke 24:13-35 we can read about a couple of disciples on the road to Emmaus whom the resurrected Lord met along the way. In this story, the immortal Jesus disguised himself so that he could not be recognized by sight. After walking, talking and breaking bread with these two disciples they finally recognized him, but just then Jesus vanished, and left them wondering,
"Did not our heart burn within us?"
So, our Mormon upbringing has taught us that we can learn the truth by the power of the spirit, and that the spirit comes in the form of these profound spiritual experiences. On top of that, the Church has taught us how to interpret these experiences. We are trained to interpret these experiences as proof that the claims of the Church are literally true. Then, once we "know" that one of the basic claims is true (for example, The Book of Mormon), then we know that basically all of the Church's other claims are true as well. This may be the only interpretation we are taught to consider, but there are other possible ways of viewing our sacred experience.
Why do we need to consider alternate interpretations of our spiritual experience?
For one, the interpretation I outlined above does not allow us to be very flexible or adaptable in the face of religious differences or new information. As a result, we may have difficulty talking about religion with our non-member friends. Or we might be completely at a loss as we try to sympathize with our Mormon friends and family who decide to leave the Church, or adopt a different brand of Mormonism. Additionally, we may one day encounter historical or scientific information which challenges that traditional interpretation of our spiritual experience. At this point, having an alternate interpretation to fall back on could help us avoid a total faith crisis, or at least lessen the pain and confusion we feel during such a crisis. For any number of reasons I fail to mention here, there may come a time when these alternate interpretations become absolutely vital to our social, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual health.
Determining which of these various possibilities is the most valid is a rather personal, subjective matter; and I would suggest that it should be done prayerfully and with care by every individual. For the purposes of this post, I will attempt to boil the various interpretations down to five possible approaches. The following points roughly mirror the points I make in my previous post called "Evaluating Non-Mormon Spirituality."
- a) You don't feel anything special when praying, reading the scriptures, or going to Church. b) The absense of such an experience in your life leads you to the conclusion that spiritual experiences are not real.
- a) You do feel something special when praying, reading the scriptures, or going to Church. b) However, these emotional experiences are best explained as wishful thinking, or a kind of coping mechanism, to help you deal with suffering, death, or uncertainty surrounding life's big questions - such as the very purpose of your existence. c) You may or may not find those religious comforts useful.
- a) You do feel something special when praying, reading the scriptures, going to Church, or otherwise searching for the truth. b) Though perhaps not entirely practical, you feel this spirituality is a meaningful part of the human experience, like art and love. c) You may or may not feel those spiritual experiences have supernatural origins, and serve as evidence of a benevolent force in the universe (i.e. God).
- a) You definitely felt something special as you searched, pondered, and prayed. b) This spiritual sense may be as "real" for you as anything you experienced with your other five senses. c) You believe this spiritual experience qualifies as a witness from God (probably through the Holy Spirit). d) You interpret this witness as evidence of a particular truth. e) You may feel that the "truth" communicated is literal, or you may feel the truth is metaphorical in nature. f) As strong as your convictions may be, you recognize that a spiritual witness is not the same thing as empirical or scientific evidence, and what is very real to you is not necessarily verifiable by another. g) You tend to weigh the evidence of this spiritual witness against any and all available physical evidence (historical, archeological, genetic, etc.) h) It is possible for you to accept some of the Church's claims while finding others less credible.
- a) You absolutely feel something special in connection with your Mormon religious activities. b) This feeling is without a doubt the Holy Spirit testifying to your heart. c) This witness is evidence of a particular truth. d) That truth is literal in nature. e) If that specific claim is literally true, then the whole Mormon package must be literally true. f) The evidence of this spiritual witness trumps whatever physical evidence may seem to contradict it.
In addition to these five types, there is at least one more category of Latter-day Saint that I am not sure how to fit on this spectrum, but I feel they deserve our attention here, because I think they represent a large portion of the membership of this Church. They begin with the same experience as number 1 above, but then they veer off in a completely different direction, so I'll call them 1x. a) You do not feel you have experienced anything profoundly spiritual in connection with your Church activities. b) However, you generally feel you can trust your friends, family, and leaders when they say they have. c) You may choose to give them a rather absolute degree of trust; or you may feel more casual about your level of devotion because of your own lack of personal conviction about Church claims. d) In either case you choose to stick around because you find the gospel or the Church organization useful, or you respect your family traditions, or you identify in some way with Mormonism culturally, etc., etc.
Now, I think that about covers it; but keep in mind that this is an attempt to give voice to a wide spectrum of varying interpretations in a very small nutshell. I hope this little model will be useful, but these kinds of things are usually too clean to match our actual lived thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Think about which of these approaches resonates with you the most, if any. Which of them helps you to account for the greatest amount of truth? Which of them helps you to have more compassion and empathy for people you may disagree with?
I suppose many of you may be wondering where I fit on this spectrum. I am probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 and 4. However, in my opinion, what the spirit has to communicate about specific denominational claims is not nearly as important as the way the spirit can inspire us with the Love of God and transform us into more compassionate creatures. The love of our heavenly parents is the great truth, and the Holy Spirit has been teaching this truth to spiritually-minded people all over the world for thousands of years. The great tragedy is that so many religious people find so many things to prioritize higher than this absolutely central principle of the gospel.