Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment

Blake T. Ostler
August 2007

Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment

[Editor's note: This is an edited transcript of Blake's 2007 FAIR Conference presentation.]

What I am going to discuss today I consider to be sacred. In fact, what I am going to discuss today is at the very center of life for millions of people. It’s the lifeblood of the church when we get right down to it. Isn’t it interesting? When we approach people who are not LDS and ask them to consider what we have to offer, we don’t suggest that we offer a superior theology of axioms and propositions (though I would suggest we have a compelling and beautiful theology and we may even share with them our best take on how our theology works for us). And we don’t try to persuade them through arguments from scripture that we can read the Bible better than they can, or that we have the best reading of scripture based on the most recent biblical scholarship (though we definitely will share our scriptures with them and will do our best to get them to read scripture, and I believe we have a persuasive reading of the texts). In fact, the last thing on earth we would do is send out a bunch of 19 year olds to argue with people about the Bible if that’s what we were serious about. Now, we don’t try to persuade them that we have overwhelming empirical evidence to demonstrate that we’re right (though we may offer them empirical evidence). Rather, what we offer is a way to enter into an interpersonal relationship directly with God to get answers directly from God. We don’t say, “Trust me and my brain and how well I can argue;” we say, “Despite the fact that I’m not such a great instrument, you can get it for yourself and you don’t have to rely on me.”

We are rather like the first disciples in the Gospel of John who, when they met Jesus and saw, went to their closest friends and family members and said, simply, “Come and see.” They didn’t offer arguments and scriptural proofs to try to prove that their belief in Jesus was correct. All they did was say, “Come and take a look.” Now when they said, “come and see,” they didn’t merely mean to use one’s eyeballs, but to see with deeper and more spiritually insightful eyes. So I begin my discourse with this simple invitation: come and see, and use every faculty of human discernment with which to see.

Today I address the very heart of Mormonism–the human heart as the basis of religious knowledge and commitment. Now let me make clear that I am speaking of the heart, not as a muscle in the chest that pumps blood, nor merely as an emotional experience. I speak of the human heart in the fullest Hebrew sense, of laybab, that denotes what we now associate with something that we bifurcate in our own culture, Mind and Emotions. I speak of the heart in the fullest Hebrew sense that includes both cognitive and affective functions, in fact, is the very center and seat of spiritual life.

Now let me be up-front about what I won’t do, because I can’t, and because it trivializes what I want to focus on. I will not give some argument or evidence to try to persuade you or anybody else that your spiritual experiences are valid and trustworthy. If I were to attempt to argue with you to prove that to you, I would only show and prove (quite conclusively) that I believe that in reality there is something more basic and trustworthy than spiritual experiences; that is, the arguments I would give you. If I were to argue in that way, I would show conclusively that I really don’t believe what I am about to tell you. Now in saying this I’m not stating that I won’t give reasons, or that I won’t do my best to reason with you. I am saying, however, that at bottom, these arguments are not what is most trustworthy and basic in Mormonism. What is most basic in Mormonism is the individual experience of the Spirit.

Now, I will also argue that it is a mistake to take spiritual experiences as evidence for anyone but the person who has the experience. The fact that I’ve had an experience doesn’t mean that you have some reason to believe. It only means that to the extent that you find that I might have something useful to say, that maybe you could do it too. I will, in fact, suggest that to see these experiences as evidence for other people misunderstands the role they play in our lives. In fact, I will argue that that would be like, well in a sense, idolatry, or trying to commit adultery, as bad as that is. However, I will also suggest that these spiritual experiences are so powerful that they reorient everything in our lives, they become the bases through which we see.

Now, I’m going to show you a picture and I am going to ask you to look very carefully, because I’m going to promise you that there is something there that you won’t see but it’s most definitely there. What is it that you see? You see a picture, right? Now there is something in this picture that you’re not seeing at all, in fact it’s what makes the picture possible. And in fact, there are two of them in this picture. Do you know what I’m referring to? The lens. Every time we look at a picture there is something there that we don’t see but it makes possible seeing the picture at all.

I’m going to suggest that our spiritual experiences are like the lens. They’re not the information of the picture itself; they’re what make seeing the picture possible. And that instead of looking for all of the information in the picture to try to make sense of the experience, we simply experience, and that way we know that we have the lens.

Now I’m going to approach the question of religious experience because, believe it or not, religious experience has been the subject of intense study in the philosophy of religion in the past two decades. Literally reams and reams and forests have been burnt on this issue.

Now I will approach this question of religious experience in the LDS tradition as a sufficient basis for a life commitment from thee different perspectives, and there’s a reason for that. That’s because the presuppositions of the people with which I will be dialoguing are so different that I can’t even approach the subject in the same way in addressing them. I’m going to approach this subject from the LDS perspective, from the evangelical perspective (that the Bible is the real and only sure foundation for religious commitment), and the naturalistic agnostic or atheistic position.

Let’s talk a little bit about the experience, what are we talking about? Well, we have a problem here because religious experiences are by their very nature personal. They are, by their very nature, something that the individual experiences. Now there have been religious experiences where a lot of people have experienced them, but the experience of the heart that I am talking about is for each individual to experience in the privacy of their own heart. There’s a reason for that, I’ll suggest. The heart actually functions as a microcosm of the temple, as the altar at which sacrifice is made. In fact, it is the sacrifice that’s made because we are asked to give our hearts.

I’m talking about something very sacred and I’m going to offer up for consideration what I know best, because I’m the world’s authority on it, and that’s my own experiences. Now I have, in listening to experiences of others, come to believe that what they have experienced is very much like what I’ve experienced; but I don’t believe that it could be identical or that I could even know whether it’s identical. I only know when I was about 14 years of age, like Joseph Smith when he walked into the grove, I watched a very interesting show. It was Brigham Young. In fact it had a very interesting actor in it, Dean Jagger; no, not that Dean Jagger, the other one. This Dean Jagger, when he was 80 years old, became baptized as a Mormon, by the way. But I didn’t know that at the time. I watched the movie and toward the end of the movie Brigham Young is about to go tell all of the Saints that he’s actually a fraud, that he’s not really a prophet. And then the seagulls come in and swoop down and eat the crickets and save his bacon so he doesn’t have to make this confession. And even to a 14 year old, it dawned on me that if that’s the way it really was, it wasn’t worth committing a life to. And I was not going to commit a life because there were things that looked a lot better to my 14 year old eyes than going to church every Sunday, believe me. And so I went to my very, very wise mother and I asked her, “Mom, where can I read about Brigham Young?” And she said, “I don’t know, maybe the Doctrine and Covenants.” {laughter}

Now as you all know, there’s not much about Brigham Young in the Doctrine and Covenants, but I read it anyway. I took on the goal of reading ten sections a day. And I remember somewhere around the second day having come to the firm conclusion that I wished I could know like Joseph Smith knew whether he was a prophet, but I didn’t believe anybody could know that. I didn’t believe that it would be possible. You see, that was long in the past and there’s no way to know what he personally experienced; the man I really wanted to know. And so with every page, with every paragraph, with every sentence, and every word in every sentence, I asked the same question, “Is this true? Are there clues here to suggest that this is worth committing my life to?” About the third day it began to dawn on me that my life was not in accordance with what I was reading, and I remember very simply getting down on my knees and saying, “I’ve been really stupid, forgive me.” And what I experienced was if somebody took fuller’s soap and washed me from the inside out. I knew that I’d been forgiven, and I sat down and began to read again. Somewhere around the eighth day I was sitting on my bed reading all about Brigham Young in the Doctrine and Covenants. And you can guess the sections I was reading because on the eighth day I would have begun with section 80 and gone through section 90. And as I read, my heart burned within me, and I knew. I knew that my heart was burning. I knew I wasn’t creating it, and I knew it was an answer to what I thought was impossible to know. And even a 14 year old like me could figure that out.

Now, I want to talk a bit about this experience. At that point in my life I was merely a spiritual neophyte like we all begin. About a year later I had, like Joseph Smith had, fallen into some disreputable conduct again notwithstanding the fuller’s soap that had cleaned my soul. But I was, in fact, just across the street from where we sit right now in Jordan High School. I was going into an assembly and I was seated on the stairs to go into the gymnasium. (In fact, where I’m standing now is where I had my first automobile accident on the driving course, but that’s beside the point {laughter}). I was going into the gymnasium and a girl that I barely knew came and sat down by me. She was a Senior and I was a Sophomore, and she was pretty and I was intimidated. Now normally I would have never said anything to her because to speak to a pretty Senior girl when you’re a lowly Sophomore is just simply verboten. But there was nothing I could do to stop from saying, “I know this is going to sound really strange, but I have a message to you from our Heavenly Father. He wants you to stop thinking about suicide.” And her eyes got real big and her jaw dropped and she said, “How did you know?” And I told her as honestly as I could, mustering all the courage I had, “I don’t know; I simply know.” And she explained to me that she had laid out on her bed stand a whole bottle of pills that she was going to go home and take right after that assembly. In fact, the next day she came and told me that I’d literally saved her life. And it dawned on me at that moment in my life, “What if I hadn’t listened?” What if, instead, I had gone to my head and thought it through? What if I had relied on my own noggin? Well, the answer’s very simple, she would be dead. She’s not, she’s a mother and she’s doing well.

But I want to talk about this “diamond” that we have, the opportunity to know God in this simple interpersonal manner. Because what we offer as Mormons is not simply “a truth,” we’re offering a relationship. We’re saying, “What really matters isn’t whether you agree with me, whether I’m right or you’re wrong; what really matters is whether you know God. And so I’m offering a way for you to have a relationship with God directly.” Now the experience that I had, at least the way I experienced it, was both cognitive and affective and involved both the head and the heart. The burning in the bosom, or the heart, is called that because it’s at the very center of the human soul. It is, essentially, what we are. Now it involves affective components, or feelings, but it also involves a sense of pure knowledge and enlightenment; at least it did in my case. I felt like pure knowledge was being poured into me. I believe that most often this experience comes just as it did to me, in conjunction with intense and sincere study, searching and thoughtful pondering. There’s something else I’d like to point out, it cannot be experienced or produced at will, but is experienced as coming from another source than one’s self; at least that’s how I experienced it. Another thing, I knew, but I can’t tell you how I know, or how I knew then. It also involves, and at least it did for me, a sense that this is something that is very familiar to me; I’ve always known this, I’m not learning it for the first time, it’s very familiar to me.

Another facet of this diamond is that it involves more than just cognitive or discursive knowledge, what in Latin we would call sapere, it also involves it also involves interpersonal knowledge, or what in Latin we call conoscere. Now in Greek when it says that life eternal is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (I believe that’s John 17:3), it doesn’t say “to know all about God.” One does not have this type of knowledge by getting a degree in theology. One does not have this type of knowledge by memorizing a catechism. One has this kind of knowledge by simply coming to know God interpersonally, and that’s what the word means as a matter of fact. In Greek, the word “to know” is ginosko, and it means to have this kind of interpersonal relationship. We make this same kind of distinction in English a bit, but we have a word for it that really doesn’t connote knowledge as much; we call it acquaintance. But it really doesn’t mean “to know,” but it is a type of knowing. To know God is the most important aspect of the experience because to know God in this sense is eternal life. Indeed, to know that we are accepted into relationship with God and to invite God to reside in our hearts is a moment of justification by grace through faith, and the beginning of the life of sanctification in which the spirit enters into us and Christ takes up abode in us in the process of Christification, of being conformed to the image of Christ; a process culminating in deification. That’s the message that we offer.

Now also associated, another facet of this diamond, is the feeling of indescribable joy, peace, and sweetness. A final aspect of this diamond, it reorients all experience, so that everything in life is now seen through it as the “lens” in order to make sense of it. That’s what we call “conversion.” You see a conversion converts everything about us, it makes us different, but not merely are we different inside, everything that we experience is new; at least it was for me.

Now if we are fashioning a means of knowing God, imagine how ingenious this is. It doesn’t discriminate based on intellect or literary acumen; and it’s sensitive to what really matters most about individuals and life and our relationship with God. Moreover, it’s sensitive to individual accountability because a person must choose to be open to having the experience as a pre-condition. Openness of heart, instead of hardness of heart, is the condition constantly identified in the scriptures. And it is the basis for an interpersonal relationship that leads to salvation and unimaginable glory. If you were a loving Father and you wanted to devise a way for your children to come to know you by choosing to be in a relationship with you, rather than being overwhelmed by your unimaginable glory and goodness, this may be the perfect way to choose for people to enter into a relationship. Moreover, how about the notion that what God has given to us is actually an instrument for knowing Him? The perfect metaphor I think for this is the Liahona, that is, something that is an instrument of spiritual guidance and knowing planted in our very hearts. You see, what I’m suggesting is that what we have planted within us is our own personal Liahona within our hearts. It works when we’re spiritually sensitive and it guides us, and when we’re not spiritually sensitive it simply doesn’t work at all.

So what do know based on this experience? Now I’m going to suggest something, and this may be surprising to you, but merely by having this experience doesn’t mean that we “know.” Can this experience be doubted? Can it be doubted that it came from God? The answer is: of course it can! There are scores of Latter-day Saints who’ve had this experience who no longer have a testimony. So, it can be doubted because it is in fact, at times, doubted. Now it is often asserted that we cannot know anything with surety, in fact I hear that from people who have lost their testimony. However, we can know that we’ve had this experience; nevertheless the issue as to the veridicality of the source of the experience, whether it is caused by God or by our own brain processes, requires faith. And the primary source for looking at that is Alma 32.

Alma 32:28 says, “If you give place that a seed may be planted in your heart it will begin to swell within your breasts;” and then you will feel these swelling motions. And here’s how you know it’s good: It begins to enlarge my soul, it begins to enlighten my understanding, and it begins to be delicious to me. Repeating three times the word “begins.” Alma 32:34 then has a question that is asked, “Is this knowledge?” And surprisingly the answer that is given is, “No! It hasn’t grown into knowledge, but you must say that it is a good seed because it grows.” Now are you sure it is a good seed? Alma gives the answer, “Yeah, it’s a good seed.” And how do you know that, is your knowledge perfect in that thing? And Alma says, “Yes, it is perfect in that thing.” What you know is that the word has swelled in your soul, that it has sprouted that your understanding begins to be enlightened and that your mind begins to expand. Do you know anything more than that? Well, only by faith. Alma then asks this question, “Is it real? Yes! Because it’s light and light is good and good is discernible.” Now Alma again asks the question in verse 36, “Now after you have tasted the light, is your knowledge perfect?” And surprisingly the answer once again is, “Nay.” It still requires faith. We must still nourish the tree or it will not grow. If we neglect the tree, it won’t grow; not because the seed wasn’t good, but because “your ground was barren.”

You see, whether or not we have a spiritual experience depends on whether or not we are open and soft hearted as opposed to being hardened in the heart. Now, how do we plant the seed? Alma explains that too. We search the scriptures. In fact he goes on to quote Zenos, Zenock, and Moses to tell the story of the brazen serpent; and as you’ve heard earlier today the brazen serpent that was raised was actually Christ. All they had to do was look, but because of the hardness of their hearts, they wouldn’t look. They refused the invitation to come and see for themselves simply by closing their hearts.

So I would ask, what do we know after we have had such a spiritual experience? Do we know that God is the source of the experience? Well, here’s what we know. We know that we can’t produce the experience at will. We know in many cases that the experience came about while earnestly seeking a response from God. We know that we experienced it as coming from God in the experiencing of it. We know that as a result of the experience we feel immense love and a desire to do better. In this sense, we know that the experience is good and good is discernible. We also know that all of our experience and the meaning of life is reoriented–we are born again, a new person seeing with new eyes and a new heart.

Now I ask again, can humans really know anything? Does the experience come from God, or do we merely interpret it to be experienced as coming from God? I’m going to deal with the strongest arguments that I know.

The first argument is “The Argument from Interpretive Framework Inherent in all Human Experience,” and these are the premises. The first premise: all human experience involves interpretation, and I guarantee you that it does; that’s true. Two, the interpretation of the experience of burning in the bosom as coming from God is something we do as humans. And three, the interpretation is therefore a human contribution to the experience and all that we really know is that we have had an experience, that we experienced it as coming from God in the experiencing of it, and we cannot know more than that.

Well, is that a good argument? It is in a sense, but the argument proves too much. Maybe at this point it makes some sense to talk about and show the kind of interpretations to human experience we have – maybe we ought to see the “dots.” I want you to stare at the black cross in the middle and watch what happens. {pause} Has it disappeared yet? If you still see the purple dots on the outside, raise your hand. Have they disappeared for anybody? Keep looking. Has the ball turned red for anybody? Green. It should turn green actually, yeah. Well, for a person who is color blind like me, it’s red; all right.

Our minds add the experience of seeing a green ball and they take away the dots because they become irrelevant to our experience. You see, there’s really more there than we’re experiencing. We filter out of our experience literally 90% to 98% of all of the sense data that come into us. We don’t even bring it to consciousness. And so, what I am showing you is that our experience is in fact interpreted, at least when it comes through our senses. So is it the case that all we are really doing when we have a spiritual experience is interpreting it as coming from God, and it’s simply up for grabs as to whether the interpretation is true or not?

I suggest that there would be no possibility of new experiences that break out of the framework of existing paradigms and world-views or our prior interpretations if all experience were necessarily limited to our pre-interpretive framework of interpretation. Yet that is precisely what a conversion experience is–it reorients one’s entire view of the world and changes and alters the interpretive framework. Thus, it must be in some sense logically and experientially prior to interpretive experience.

You can turn the overhead projector off now, people are much more interested in that then they are in me. {laughter} Oh, maybe we ought to see “rabbit/duck,” just because anybody who has studied Ludwig Wittgenstein has to see this. You probably already have, actually. In a large way, the way that we see the world is up to us. What do you see? Do you see a duck? How many see a duck? How many see a rabbit? Okay, who is right? In fact, you can change at will, once you have learned how to see it, you can change at will the way you see this figure. And in a large way, the way that we can choose to see our experience is precisely like this. We can choose to organize our experience to see it in different ways. I suggest that in the experiencing of religious experience, this is often what is happening; we’re choosing to see different things and experience different things because of our pre-interpretive framework.

But I’m suggesting that that’s not all there is to experience, there’s more to experience than mere interpretation, and this argument isn’t any good unless all of our experience is simply interpretation. As I said, the spiritual experience must in some sense be logically and experientially prior to our interpretive experience because it reorients our experience. It gives us a new way of seeing. Moreover, if the experience rearranges and replaces the framework so that it is the framework or categories, then it is not interpreted experience, but interpretive, and the bases for all further experience as such.

Now this argument also assumes that the entirety of what is experienced is interpretive. But there is more than interpretation that gives content to our experience, and the experience of the burning in the heart and the inspiration as coming from God is, in fact, good reason to believe that it does in fact, come from God; because that’s how we experience it.

If all we ever did were to regurgitate our prior categories of thought or fixed framework of beliefs, then there could never be anything novel or creatively new things. No new scientific theories could emerge, new inventions would be impossible and new revelations could never happen because all we would do is regurgitate what we already know. But that’s not the way human life is, so I suggest that the argument isn’t valid.

Now, one of the characterizing aspects of the experience, as I said, is that it reorients our lives; it reorients the way we see the world. I suggest that spiritual experiences, at least within the LDS tradition, are based on what is given in all experience and all reasoning that precedes and exceeds both reason and experience. Such presence is always already known because it is the basis for our very experience itself. It’s like the lens. Without the lens we can’t even see; we don’t know what we’re seeing. And so it is with our religious experiences, we can’t even make sense of the experience unless we experience through it already.

It is the very “first principle” of all of our experience. By the very “firstness” of what is always already included within our existence, it cannot be preceded by something more basic or be justified by some other explanation or argument. That makes it sui generis, or something that stands on its own. Moreover, such experiences are “regulatory assertions” which play a different role in thinking than evidence or arguments. Such experiences therefore resist logical and evidentiary proofs. Religious experiences may be the basis of truth claims, but not the same kind of truth claims as empirical and logical explanations or assertions. Rather, by their very “firstness” these experiences make other meaningful experiences and reasoning possible where they apply. Everything that we experience and say already presumes the truth of our experiences reoriented by the Spirit, and they become the lens that gives us eyes to see what would otherwise only be a blurry jumble of data without meaning.

So the conclusion? Knowing that the experience comes from God requires faith and trust and rests upon a choice. And that shouldn’t be so strange because we are accountable for what we know.

Now I’m going to talk about the next problem and this is a deep philosophical problem. We can call it “The Matrix Problem,” it’s extreme skepticism. Consider this (and I know you’ve all considered this), assume that we are in fact merely brains in a vat with all of our memories and experiences fed into our brains. And what would that entail? It would entail that we live in “The Matrix.” It would entail that everything that we experience now we would experience in the identical way we experience things just by sitting here, and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference because it would be identical in every respect. We cannot tell the difference between our experience and the experience of a brain in the vat. Therefore, we don’t know whether we are brains in a vat or living in this reality that we experience.

Now that happens to be a valid argument by the way. If you doubt it, think it through. In every respect, we couldn’t distinguish our experiences. So the supposed conclusion is that we cannot know with absolute certainty that we in fact had the experience because we could have been fed a memory of that experience directly from neural inputs into our brains five minutes ago. Further, if that were the case, then our experience would be identical to the memory that we now have of it; how could we tell?

But there is an obvious response to that, no one in this room believes that he or she is a brain in a vat. If you do, we have a psychologist waiting in the back waiting to just take care of you. Now if you believe that you are just a brain in a vat, please raise your hand because we’ve got to deal with this now, we can’t wait. But why don’t we believe that? Why don’t we take that hypothesis seriously; because this really, truly is the argument that’s being made when people say, “Oh, it’s really just a frenzied mind. You couldn’t tell the difference, it would be identical anyway.”

Well why don’t we believe that? Well because we have background experiences that form a totality of our experience that make such conclusions simply, literally, unbelievable for us. And as I said that anyone who seriously harbored such worries would be properly referred to counseling for psychological problems – that is because we are entitled to rely on our experience when we experience it in a properly functioning way. If we experience our experience as coming from God, as I said, that’s a very good reason to believe that it does in fact come from God.

So, I would like to distinguish between two types of knowledge claims. First, I’ll call these the “Insane Epistemological Certainty” claims – with emphasis on insanity. We must be able to completely discount all rival interpretations of our experience or we cannot claim knowledge, at least that’s the claim. The problem is that only an insane person really worries about whether they are a brain in a vat or stuck within the Matrix. So I’d like to distinguish that from a second type of knowledge which I call “Pragmatically Meaningful Knowledge.” Based on all of our background knowledge, and the way that we must live our lives, to trust our experience is the only thing that really makes sense; and I suggest that it’s the same with religious experience. It’s the only thing that really makes sense of our experience.

Now I want to pass to the next argument; this is an equally challenging argument, by the way, and this is a challenging argument. It’s the challenge from “Religious Pluralism.”

Others who are not Mormon, who are equally or more intelligent, equally or more spiritual sensitive, also have spiritual experiences … and it must be inferred that such religious experiences call LDS religious experiences into question (otherwise how could people experience confirmation of their own religious traditions the same way we do?).

Now there is something that is really right about this objection. It is true that others who are at least as intelligent and also spiritually sensitive have spiritual experiences. However, it doesn’t follow that other spiritual experiences outside of the LDS tradition call the LDS tradition into question. Why is that?

Well, it is a part of the LDS tradition that those outside of Mormonism will have spiritual experiences. Wilford Woodruff had numerous spiritual experiences, including visions and dreams, before he became LDS. In fact, he had a friend, “Robert the Prophet,” who prophesied the Restoration and he regarded him as having the gift of prophecy.

I suggest that if we adopt religious “exclusivism” or “pluralism,” then we have a problem. Exclusivism is the view that only we have a direct conduit to God and only we have “the truth.” Pluralism is the view that everybody has as much right to say that they have got the truth as everybody else. But I don’t believe that we adopt either of those views; I believe that LDS adopt what I call “religious inclusivism.” That is, for instance, the experiences of evangelicals that Jesus is Christ don’t call into question the LDS faith at all. Faith is a universally and eternally valid principal for all. Every person will receive that degree of light that they are willing to receive and every degree of light represents salvation. Further, every person has a purpose in human life to learn from experiences given wherever they are in their progression. It must be a part of our faith that the people who are born in the deepest jungles in Africa, who will never hear the Gospel during this life, have as much purpose in their life to learn from their life experiences as we do; and that they will gain, thereby, an increase in light by so doing. And I tell you that it is simply true that faith in Christ is an eternally and universally valid principle and basis for knowing and experiencing truth and performing miracles. Faith in Christ is as valid a principle for Augustine as for President Hinckley and as operative in the day of Martin Luther as it was in the day of Joseph Smith. That’s our faith.

Now we may be called into question if somebody has a vision, for instance, of the Virgin Mary; because I don’t believe that the LDS believe that the Virgin Mary puts in many appearances. However I suggest that we look beyond what divides us and look to “inclusivism,” and that is, “What is it that they learned? What does their religious experience teach them?” Because God will adapt his message to any culture, and any means that He can, to increase the light of a person (see Alma 29:8). So I suggest that by adopting “religious inclusivism” we minimize the challenge from “religious pluralism.”

I have a few cautions for Mormons before I move on to the agnostics:

  1. Having the spiritual confirmation of the spirit does not make one morally or spiritually superior. This is very important to know.
  2. The experience is open to doubt because having once experienced the Spirit does not mean that we can experience it now–in fact in Alma 5 he asks, “I would ask if you once felt to sing the song of redeeming love, can you feel to do so now?”–with the obvious implication that it is possible not to. There is a vastly important distinction between having a testimony, and having a memory of having once had a testimony. It is like the distinction between being in an intimate and fulfilling relationship with one’s spouse and once having had a spouse, and not being in a relationship at all. It is that vast of a distinction.
  3. Having spiritual experiences doesn’t mean that one is omniscient or knows all truth or cannot be mistaken about gospel principles. Revelation is continuing in the Church and it must be continuing for each individual. The fact that there is continuing revelation is a pretty good clue that we don’t know it all already, and we could be wrong. I repeat, we could be wrong.
  4. The reception of spiritual experiences doesn’t entail that they are all scripture. The argument is common that because the prophet is not receiving revelations like Joseph Smith that are written in scripture, therefore prophecy and revelation have ceased in the Church. However, it must be disconcerting for a church that says that what guarantees the truthfulness of our church is continuing revelation, and we know we have the right interpretation of scripture because we have an ongoing revelation that interprets the scriptures for us. With all due respect I don’t see a “thus saith the Lord” in the [unintelligible] in a long time. Does that mean that the Church has ceased to receive revelation and is therefore no longer true? I suggest looking at it from a different perspective. The goal has always been a “nation of prophets” who themselves are governed by personal revelation. Each person, each Sunday School teacher, each Relief Society president, and (in my case) every Nursery leader, must receive revelation for their stewardship and the accountability for receiving revelation; and it shifts the accountability to each member so that we can’t avoid our responsibility by relying on the prophet to have revelations for us. In fact, I suggest that there is more revelation in the Church now than in the time of Joseph Smith, not less. The goal has always been a “nation of prophets.”
  5. D&C 46 suggests that some have a spiritual gift to know for themselves through the spirit; others have a spiritual gift to have faith in the words of those who know. That seems to me to entail that not everyone will have such direct spiritual confirmation because for them the fact that others have such experiences is sufficient to sustain their faith. In fact, I’ll quote D&C 46:11.

For all have not every gift given to them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God…. To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus is the Son of God, and the he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they might also have eternal life if they continue faithful.

I suggest that that implies that there will be people, even though notwithstanding the promise in Moroni 10, for whom they will not have a direct religious experience. I know lots of faithful Latter-Day Saints, notwithstanding earnest study and long prayer, have not received the burning in the bosom of which I speak. In fact there was a wonderful Relief Society President in Genova who was constantly in crisis because the Elders had promised her that all she had to do was ask and she would have the spiritual experiences like they had. I suggest that maybe her faith was sufficient, and she did have faith.

Now I want to pass now and address a different audience, maybe not this audience at all; but this is the most vivid challenge to Mormonism, in my view. It is the “Secular Materialist Challenge” to religious belief. Korihor summed it up well, “it’s all the effect of a frenzied mind.” Now the argument is simple: relying on spiritual experiences is simply irrational. The reason for that is that only publicly available evidence that is replicable based on the scientific method is trustworthy as a basis for knowledge. I guarantee you that every secular materialist will trump the vast superiority of scientific knowledge over the subjective and “whimsical” knowledge that we claim through spiritual experiences, and you’ve all heard it and so have I.

I want to give a counterexample: I had a thought about buying a hamburger three minutes ago. That’s not unusual for me. It would be irrational for me to doubt that I had this thought, and yet this thought is not available as public evidence, it’s not replicable, but I would be insane to doubt that I actually had this thought (and it was a rather good thought!).

Now, if it is rational to rely on the presentation of our senses, then to that extent, what we experience spiritually is like having an extra sense. In fact, look at the way the scriptures present this experience, it “tastes good,” it involves “feelings.” Whenever the scriptures talk about this type of experience, as a matter of fact, they talk about an extra sense that’s been given to us by God. I’m going to focus on something, as a matter of fact, in Deuteronomy 30. It talks about something that God has planted in our hearts. This is what it says, “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart.” If you want to know what circumcision was about, the entire law of circumcision was about having a soft heart–open to God. In fact, if you think about what circumcision is, it’s taking the most vulnerable, private part of a body, and cutting it open to be exposed. That’s what circumcision is.

And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live… For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

Now, when Paul reflects upon this scripture, it becomes the very center of confession of Christ because the word, the commandment, the dvar, that gets placed in the heart, Paul sees as being Christ who gets planted in the heart. Romans 10:5:

For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

You see, what Paul is saying is that the very basis of this religious knowledge is something that is being implanted into us by God. In fact, the scriptural basis of the human heart as a faculty, or sense, is clear. Why is it that for the Hebrews the heart is the place where thinking occurs, it’s the place where human decisions are made, and for us it’s all up here in the head? It’s because they were in touch with something that we’ve lost in our culture.

Here’s how Strong’s New Testament Concordance of the Bible defines the human heart (which is in Greek kardia, and in Hebrew laybab, both of which mean “heart” as it is used in both Old and New Testaments): The center and seat of spiritual life, the soul or mind as it is the fountain and seat of thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, and endeavors; the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence; of the will and character; of the soul so far as it is affected or stirred in a bad or good way; or of the soul as the seat of sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, appetites and passions. You see, the heart is what it is all about! It’s the very center of what we are and we can’t fool God in our heart, and God looks at our heart to see who we really are.

Now, we’ve got this magnificent argument that only scientific knowledge is really worthy of belief, and the fact is that that simply is not true; otherwise believing in the thoughts that we have and believing that we had them would be irrational. But I want to get down to something that’s really important, in fact, if one is a materialist and a naturalist, the only thing that possibly exists in human experience all happens up here in the brain. It’s all there is. Everything that happens is experienced by a combination of nurture and nature put together as it occurs in the brain; there’s nothing more to human experience than that, and there can’t be.

I’m going to quote from Bob McCue, a former bishop who lost his testimony. I think it’s very revealing, and Bob has put this on the net so I assume he wants it to be consumed.

I have had many intense, moving spiritual experiences that given the premises of the Mormon belief system … should be expected to buttress the belief that Mormonism was literally true and so increase the force of denial in my life. These experiences include the lost of sense of self Newberg et al. Describe in “Why God Won’t Go Away.” that I have had many times while praying about the Book of Mormon and in other Mormon religious contexts. During these moments I felt connected to a source of love and peace that was at times overpowering and more attractive than anything else I have felt. I also had many experiences while serving in various church leadership capacities and particularly while serving as a Bishop, during which I felt like I was the conduit of ‘pure knowledge’ while counseling those in need or while giving priesthood blessings. One particularly powerful experience occurred as I prepared to officiate and speak at a particularly tragic funeral. I still marvel at the power I felt, and insights that came to me, at that time. Finally, I had many intensely moving experiences in a family context while giving priesthood blessings…. How can we understand experiences of this nature? How can such seemingly wonderful moments spring from something as bankrupt as literalist Mormonism seems to be? Are these experiences “good fruits” that indicate God’s hand somehow works through Mormonism despite all of its obvious difficulties?

Now the explanation–I’m not making this up:

I am a person who has what some may have called a big “God spot” in my brain. I have not been tested, but I would expect the activity rates in this part of my brain to be above the norm. This is likely in part genetic, and in part related to how I was raised. But even within the faithful Mormon population, my tendencies toward things of an emotional or spiritual nature was above average. It is my belief that in general the Mormon population has more “god spot” activity than the rest of the population. This would be the result of conditioning forces exerted on Mormons week after week as they attend Mormon activities… I believe that what are assumed to be spiritual experiences result from brain dysfunctions, such as temporal lobe epilepsy. (Bob McCue “How Denial Works. Denial in General and Mormon Denial in Particular. Unpublished Ms., 29 Nov. 2005.)

Now if that weren’t so absurd you’d think I was making it up, and the tragic thing is that Bob McCue actually believes that’s the explanation for his experiences. The tragic thing for McCue, even more tragic, is that the “God Spot” theory has been disproved; it has no validity whatsoever, it hasn’t been replicated. The first suggestions were based upon faulty reasoning altogether, and yet this becomes the explanation for the fact that, in a tragic moment, ideas flowed into him and he had power beyond himself to give comfort to a family in need. How does the “God Spot” explain that? It’s tragic, because he believes such nonsense and yet this is precisely what our culture is imbibed with. It’s all nurture or nature and all contained simply within the brain; that’s the explanation, full stop.

Well, I have to question materialism to begin with. Materialism has a very difficult time explaining the phenomenal quality, or qualia, of our mental experiences and is contrary to the notion that we can reason based upon rational considerations at all. I mean, consider if materialism and naturalism is true and that’s all there is, then everything we’ve got is the result of evolution and survival of the fittest. And what we’re actually fitted for is simply surviving. Well, pray tell, how is it possible that we’re even conscious, and even more difficult, how could we have reasoning processes with abstract physics and abstract mathematics? How did evolution fit us to do those kinds of things? I’m sure that chasing down the bears in the forest required us to be able to figure out how far we were going, but I don’t think it requires quantum physics. And so I would question whether this type of an approach to life has much to offer at all.

So, to the materialist, the naturalist, I would suggest, “Come and see.” Affect and feelings are in fact absolutely essential to any rational, cognitive process. Affect and feelings are the bases of cognitive decisions and are necessary for cognitive functioning, based upon recent and ongoing research.

Now I’m going to make a suggestion. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, even our most rigorous reasoning rests, at bottom, upon human intuition. For reasoning, including formal logic and mathematics, cannot proceed without at least some basic axioms and assumptions: derivation procedures, formation transference rules, and rules of inference that cannot be proven by the same rigorous reasoning. These facets of reasoning can be justified only as basic givens which have the property of just seeming right or that lead to explanation and consistency of a range of experience and data.

A number of neurophysiologists such as Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks, based upon both laboratory and clinical studies, argue that persons lacking properly functioning emotions are incapable of the ability to fully cognize and are incapable of making rational decisions in cases involving their own welfare. Such decision making, in this view, is the result of a number of complex interactions among a number of neural subsystems and rational behavior, especially in practical decision making, is dependent on neural subsystems associated with emotional processing. Among the components involved with emotion are the amygdala and parts of the limbic system. What emerges in these studies is that certain sorts of rationality cannot function in the absence of emotions and feelings at a very basic level, even a subconscious level. Without a properly functioning emotional capacity, the “decision-making-landscape” is flat and there is always less than sufficient reason to prefer one set of goals or decision over any another. Now, various structures in the brain, such as tonically active neuron sites in the caudate, directly integrate reasoning inputs from the prefrontal cortex (where we do all of our reasoning) with an emotional input from the amygdala.

So what I suggest to the naturalist is that the view that began with Plato’s Republic chapter X, that emotions and feelings are at war with reason, just isn’t true. Reason presupposes and requires emotion, feeling, and affect. In fact, anybody who studies the brain will see that we can’t reason at all without it. Studies show that decisions of any kind cannot be made without the evaluative abilities of emotions as a necessary condition to decide what matters to us. So to them I say, “Come and see. Trust your emotion because you can’t trust your reason unless you do so.”

Now there are other things that I would say about secular materialism, but I don’t think there’s time; in fact how much time is there? About up? I’m just going to “blow off” Evangelicals at this point because I don’t have time, so I’ll open up for questions.

Q: If the experience of the Spirit gives us knowledge (say, that God is real), then it follows that what I know is true. Knowledge entails justified true belief, so how could I possibly be wrong about what I know to be true as you seem to suggest?

A: Well, first of all, knowledge as justified true belief is a very difficult thing, because if anything is justified, that means it has to be true. There are long philosophical arguments about justified true belief. How could you be wrong about what you know? You can’t, but you could be wrong about what you think you know; that’s the simple answer. {laughter}

Q: What should you conclude when your spiritual experience conflicts with logical and tangible evidence?

A: This is a very good question. First I would suggest this, there’s nothing more immediate than your own experience. Only you know what your experience is. If it conflicts with logic? Trust me, I’m very good at logic and I know there are a lot of ways to do logic to make it conflict with just about anything I can come up with, that’s what I do for a living {laughter}. And tangible evidence? We don’t know what evidence is until we have all of our basic premises and axioms in place to begin with. You see, when I see through the lens of faith what counts as evidence is different than when I don’t see through the lens of faith.

In fact, I found something very interesting among people who have lost testimonies. Almost invariably they will say, “I had a testimony and then I decided, ‘I’m going to take a look at this without relying on spiritual experiences or the way that I see things when I trust the Spirit. I’m just going to see what logic or evidence provides.'” The fact is that evidence isn’t self-interpreting, and logic is only a very useful tool for arriving – and I am very “Humean” about logic. All logic is ex post facto to prove what we already feel is true; how’s that?

Q: How can one find the truth when two people experience two opposite things while praying about the Book of Mormon? One gets the feeling it’s true, the other gets the feeling it’s wrong?

A: Well, I say trust your experience. I will tell you in my experience if the person gets the feeling it’s wrong, I’d like to talk to that person. I’ve never known such a person, but I have no doubt that there are such persons. Trust your Heavenly Father. What I said was that the experience that anybody else has is not evidence for us. If somebody else has a different experience, I think I have good prima facia reason for believing my own experience as opposed to theirs. What else can I do? And it comes down to faith. Am I going to trust my heart or not? Am I going to have an open heart or am I going to close it? That’s the bottom line. So trust your own experience and if your own experience tells you that the Book of Mormon just can’t be, and God confirms that, then go with God.

Q: Do you have a book or writing that can be read to give the Evangelical argument?

A: Well, I will shortly. It will be in the fourth volume of my works, Exploring Mormon Thought. You can visit my website www.BlakeOstler.com for details.

Q: Did Joseph Smith see the Father and Son as two different beings in the First Vision or not? Given your theory of translation of the Book of Mormon, why is the metaphysical distinction between the members of the Godhead not more emphasized in the book?

A: You mean the Book of Mormon? Well I assume…I’m going to answer this first. “Did Joseph Smith see the Father and Son as two beings in the First Vision or not?” Yes. “Given your theory of translation of the Book of Mormon, why is the metaphysical distinction between members of the Godhead not more emphasized in the book?” I’m going to tell you that memory, and what we do, is changed every time we think about it and remember it. The human mind is not a static hard drive onto which we dump information. Every time we think about something, new neural connections get made. In fact, I can tell you that I know more about my spiritual experience at 14 years of age at this point in my life, than I did when I was 30 and hadn’t thought much about it or remembered it very well. The fact is that as I have reflected on it I’ve realized and learned on it more and more, and there were things that I experienced when I was 14 that I didn’t learn until I was 40, or 50. And so the fact that Joseph Smith realized only later the significance that there were in fact two Beings, and that was to be emphasized, that doesn’t bother me at all. It’s simply the nature of human experience. “Why isn’t it emphasized more in the Book of Mormon?” Well, I’ve written an article that suggests it is emphasized, you’re simply preferring to look at those passages which don’t emphasize it. {laughter} And that’s true, by the way. Those who argue for modalism in the Book of Mormon are reading it with a particular set of glasses on and I don’t believe the set of glasses is very clear, I think you need to clean the lenses.

Q: It is clearly the case that intense emotions like anger can overcome sound reasoning. What do you say about that?

A: Of course it can, but I suggest that the experience of the Spirit is not something that we create; it’s not experienced as something that I do. Let me tell you something about anger. We create anger always as means of manipulation. We learned that when we were kids if we got angry our parents would react in a certain way, and when we grew up we didn’t relearn the fact that it doesn’t do anything except make people really mad at us. That’s how anger works and other emotions. Certainly emotion can lead us away from sound reasoning. I’m not suggesting that all emotions are good or lead to sound reasoning. But what I’m suggesting is that to reduce the spiritual experience of which I speak to a mere emotion is to reduce it to a point where it simply doesn’t make any sense of the experience at all. That’s why I went through all of the facets of the experience. If you reduce it to a mere feeling, then you don’t understand what I’m talking about; and I simply invite you to “come and see.”

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