Question: How can one address arguments from reliability against the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology?

Question: How can one address arguments from reliability against the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology?

Introduction to the Criticism

As part of their epistemology, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that commitment and belief in the Church and/or its doctrines may be established through spiritual experience. This is known as having with an experience with the Holy Ghost or "Holy Spirit" (Moroni 10:3-5).

Critics of the Church have questioned the use of spiritual experiences to establish commitment and belief—citing instances in which spiritual experience was used to establish belief in something and the belief turned out to be empirically invalid. Among these examples used by critics are the supposed inability of being able to discern between revelation from God and revelation from the Devil,[1] reports of members who supposedly felt the spirit during fabricated stories of Elder Paul H. Dunn, a General Authority in the Church from the 1970s to early 1990s,[2]the report of feeling the Spirit while watching or reading works of fiction,[3] the failure of spiritual experiences to provide the empirical fruit that was supposedly promised to the believer at the time of having the experience,[4] and others.

This article will provide a collection of responses to these claims for those that would like to explore these criticisms from an apologetic perspective. The Latter-day Saint understanding and framework through which spiritual experience is processed will first be explained. A brief introduction to the various criticisms with links to responses follows.

The Latter-day Saint Conception of the Soul

The Latter-day Saint conception of spiritual experience starts with the soul. Latter-day Saints believe that the body and spirit are connected as one in a form of substance monism. This union between body and spirit is denominated the soul (D&C 88:15). The body is a separate entity from the spirit, as the spirit can live independently of the body (Ether 3:16); yet when the spirit and body are connected, they are intimately and intricately intertwined and can act upon one another.[5] Thus, whenever we do something with our bodies, it affects our spirits. Whenever something occurs in our spirit, it can affect our bodies. It may be said that, at times (perhaps when the Spirit moves upon us), they can react to each other.

The Latter-day Saint Conception of the Holy Ghost, False Spirits, and Light

Latter-day Saint theology teaches that there is a spectrum of light (synonymous with "truth" in this context) that one can receive in this life that comes from God. This light is known in Latter-day Saint vernacular as “The Light of Christ” (Moroni 7:16[6]; D&C 84:46). When one receives more of God’s truth, one receives more light (D&C 50:24; D&C 84:45). When one rejects light, is persuaded towards rejecting the truth that one has already received, or one deliberately chooses to remain without the light that God has revealed, one stays away or moves away from light.[7] This is seen as sinful. The Holy Ghost is seen as the one that moves God’s children further and further into the light (D&C 84:47). The Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ given to all people (Moroni 7:16; D&C 84:45-46). Since the Light of Christ is understood to give life and life to all things (D&C 88: 11-13), it follows that it can work on our spirit and/or our body in order to produce sensations. The Holy Ghost works in unity with God, whom Latter-day Saints believe to be of their same species—a corporeal human being with a glorified body (3 Nephi 28:10; D&C 130:22). Satan and many false spirits are seen as those beings that move God’s children further and further into the darkness (D&C 50:2-3). All of these spiritual beings are known to be material instead of immaterial (D&C 131:7). As one receives more light, one is more receptive to receiving additional light and is seen as more sensitive to the Holy Ghost and the truth that God has revealed through prophets. As one moves away from the light, they are less and less able to perceive light. The ability to perceive light can ultimately be diminished (1 Nephi 17:45). As Elder David A. Bednar, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has taught:

As we yield to that influence, to do good and become good, then the Light of Christ increases within us. As we disobey, light is decreased and can ultimately be diminished within us.[8]

Thus these spirits are acting on both our body and our spirit, connected together intimately (called the “soul” in Latter-day Saint theology), to persuade us to accept, reject, or stay indifferent to light and truth. Since God is assumed to be the same species as humans, it follows that he will know how to stimulate our beings in such a way as to produce a spiritual reaction. When these spirits act on us, they produce physically felt sensations. Latter-day Saints believe that all human beings have the ability to perceive that which is of God from that which is of the devil (Moroni 7:14; see also D&C 8:2) through the same power given by the Light of Christ. It is generally believed that what God has revealed to prophets is good and will inspire one to love God and serve him (Moroni 7:20-25; Joseph Smith – Matthew 1:37).

Introduction to Manner in Which Latter-day Saint Philosophers, Scholars, and Apologists Respond to Claims Against the Use of Spiritual Experiences in Latter-day Saint Epistemology

With the Latter-day Saint conception of spiritual experience and the obtainment of testimony in place, a more comprehensible learning of how believing Latter-day Saints might respond to these claims against the use of spiritual experience will naturally follow.

Ultimately, it is believed by the author that the way that one chooses to interpret these supposed instances of reliability will ultimately determine which side of the debate they reside on. Take for instance this classic optical illusion:

Old woman young woman.png

Ask yourself—which being do you see in this image, a young woman or an old hag? Is there a point that you're able to see both? What makes it so that you can see it one way or the other? The answer is that you choose how to interpret the same data in a way that you prefer. Sometimes, the data that you interpret suggests one interpretation over others. If we darkened in the eyes of the old hag more, we could make it look like it was connected to the young woman's hair and thus one interpretation of the data may be compelled. The same principle might be applied to spiritual experience. The experiences themselves are inherently self-determinable, self-verifiable, and interpreted by one's self. One can choose how to interpret spiritual experience

Consider the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni (Moroni 7:14-25):

14 Wherefore, take heed, my beloved brethren, that ye do not judge that which is aevil to be of God, or that which is good and of God to be of the devil.
15 For behold, my brethren, it is given unto you to judge, that ye may know good from evil; and the way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the daylight is from the dark night.
16 For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.
17 But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.
18 And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the alight by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.
19 Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the alight of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.
20 And now, my brethren, how is it possible that ye can lay hold upon every good thing?
21 And now I come to that faith, of which I said I would speak; and I will tell you the way whereby ye may lay hold on every good thing.
22 For behold, God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting, behold, he sent angels to minister unto the children of men, to make manifest concerning the coming of Christ; and in Christ there should come every good thing.
23 And God also declared unto prophets, by his own mouth, that Christ should come.
24 And behold, there were divers ways that he did manifest things unto the children of men, which were good; and all things which are good cometh of Christ; otherwise men were fallen, and there could no good thing come unto them.
25 Wherefore, by the ministering of angels, and by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, men began to exercise faith in Christ; and thus by faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing; and thus it was until the coming of Christ.

Do you see what he's saying? He tells the future reader of the record that they should lay hold upon every good thing, to be sure to interpret that which is good from that which is of God correctly, and to do it through the Light of Christ. But how do we do that? We pay attention to the framework provided to us "by the mouth of God through holy prophets"! When we have developed the framework through which Latter-day Saint revelation views a particular spiritual experience in a particular situation, we can carefully discern and weigh what that spiritual experience might be telling us through the framework of revelation from God to prophets. It is believed by the author that the epistemic framework provided by revelation is robust enough to the point that one will be able to choose how one interprets and believes in spiritual experience (Joshua 24:15).

Collection of Responses to Various Criticisms

Feeling the Spirit While Watching or Reading Works of Fiction

Some critics have pointed to how a Latter-day Saint who has felt the Spirit can also feel the Spirit while watching movies such as the Lion King, Forrest Gump, or Saving Private Ryan or reading fictional books such as Les Misérables. If a person can feel the Spirit while watching fictional movies or reading fictional books, what does that say about the Spirit's ability to confirm truth?

In the case of R-rated movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Latter-day Saints have received counsel to not watch them. If a Latter-day Saint goes against this counsel and watches it anyway, why would the Spirit be present while that person went against prophetic counsel and watched it anyway?

Sometimes, members of the Church have deliberately prayed about the truthfulness of other books to a receive a similar witness that they received about the Book of Mormon's truthfulness in an attempt to prove spiritual experience an unreliable method of determining truth.

Elder Paul H. Dunn

Elder Paul H. Dunn was a general authority in the Church during the 1970s up to the early 1990s. He told many fantastical stories of his time in war and playing baseball. Primarily former members of the Church have tried to point out instances in which faithful members felt the Spirit during the telling of these stories. If the Spirit was felt during a fabricated story, then what does that say about its ability to confirm truth? What is the Spirit?

Canada Copyright Revelation

Joseph Smith and two others traveled to Canada to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon to replenish funds depleted during the book's publication in 1830. It is claimed by critics, basing their criticism in comments made by David Whitmer, that Joseph Smith (founder of the Church) reported that revelation may come from God or the Devil. Since Joseph received the revelation, and was supposedly confident it came from God but may not have, how are we supposed to know which revelations come God and which come from the Devil?

False Positives

Many members of the Church have had a spiritual experience in their lives that supposedly confirmed to them that they were supposed to do something and by doing that thing, receive some sort of promised blessing. When these impressions have failed to bring the promised fruit of the endeavor, they and other critics of the Church have wondered what use the use of spiritual experiences is when they can be misleading. The answer to this question lies within the theology of the Church as recorded in the official scriptures.

Revelation that Contradicts the Prophet's

Many members of the Church have claimed (even since the Church's founding: Doctrine and Covenants 28) to have received personal revelation that contradicts the revelation that the President of the Church (who Latter-day Saints believe to be a prophet) has received on behalf of the entire Church organization.

Prophetic Fallibility

Latter-day Saints do not subscribe to the doctrine of scriptural or prophetic inerrancy or infallibility. Some prophets have taught things which the Church repudiates today. Some critics ask "If the Prophet can be sure that he is right about something by dint of him receiving it from the Holy Spirit and turn out wrong, what does this say about the Spirit?"

Praying and Not Receiving A Spiritual Confirmation that the Book of Mormon is True

Latter-day Saints believe that if one prays about the Book of Mormon with real intent, having a sincere heart, and having faith in Jesus Christ, God will reveal the truth of the Book of Mormon to the agent seeking revelation.

Some critics point out that, for many people, they never receive this witness of the Book of Mormon and thus it is asked what use the Spirit is if it doesn't confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon to the heart of the person seeking revelation.

Deciding Whether or Not to Feel the Holy Ghost

Latter-day Saints often describe influences of the Holy Ghost— one dynamic and the other passive.

Some critics believe that one can simply choose when feel and when they do not feel the Holy Ghost. This is used as grounds to say that spiritual experiences are deterministic in nature.

The Argument from Diversity

In Philosophy of Religion, there is a common problem cited against the existence of God. This problem is known as the problem of diversity. It is claimed that the existence of multiple competing religious traditions is evidence that a sovereign, self-disclosing God does not exist. If God does exist, why would he (she/they/it) inspire many different, contradicting, religious truth claims?

This problem has been asked of Latter-day Saint believers in relation to the use of spiritual experiences in their epistemology. If people can use spiritual experiences to establish their commitment to other religious traditions, what does this say about your use of spiritual experience to establish your belief?

This question is a part of the big three asked about the use of spiritual experiences in Latter-day Saint epistemology: diversity (which the cited article addresses), neuroscience, and reliability (which this article is addressing).

Circularity of the Use of Spiritual Experiences

Primarily secularist critics of the Church point out that the use of spiritual experiences, and more particularly the claim that the spiritual experiences come from God, is circular reasoning. Additionally, it is usually claimed that the way that Latter-day Saints interpret competing spiritual influences is circular. Latter-day Saints hold to a particular epistemic framework when interpreting the experiences of others in other faiths and competing spiritual experiences within the faith such as revelation that contradicts the prophet as described above. This article examines the charge of circularity.

Conclusion

Latter-day Saints and others investigating the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will benefit from learning about the robust religious epistemology held by the Church. They will be able to choose for themselves whether or not to believe in God. These articles and the articles responding to questions about diversity and neuroscience will hopefully prove that.

Notes

  1. Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts, (American Fork, UT: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 76. <https://cesletter.org/CES-Letter.pdf>
  2. Ibid., 77. This criticism is also sometimes applied to a situation with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle in the Church that is currently active in his service. See John Dehlin, "Testimony/Feeling the Spirit," <https://www.mormonstories.org/truth-claims/mormon-culture/testimony-feeling-the-spirit/> (25 October 2019).
  3. Runnells, CES Letter, 79.
  4. Ibid.
  5. This is exactly the view that biblical scholars recognize as being advocated in the Bible. Donald R. Potts, "Body," Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000),194; Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., "Soul," Ibid., 1245; Alice Ogden Bellisb, "Spirit," Ibid., 1248. This is also the same understanding advocated in the Book of Mormon. Dennis A. Wright, “Soul,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 734; Noel B. Reynolds, "The Language of the Spirit in the Book of Mormon" Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 33 (2019): 187-222 (193). The Doctrine and Covenants accords with this understanding. See Larry Evans Dahl, “Soul,” Doctrine and Covenants Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2012), 619. There is nothing in the Pearl of Great Price that contradicts this understanding. See Andrew C. Skinner, "Spirit(s)," Pearl of Great Price Reference Companion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2017), 280-1; Dennis L. Largey, “Soul,” Ibid., 279-80. This understanding makes it so that the noumenon/phenomenon distinction in Kantian philosophy (esp.) disappears in Latter-day Saint theology. See Blake T. Ostler, "Ep71-Knowledge is Being (Pt 1) - Vol 5," <http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/01/topics-discussed-a.html> (16 October 2019).
  6. Here the term used is “Spirit of Christ”. It is understood that this is synonymous with “Light of Christ”. See Alan L. Wilkins, “The Light of Christ,” Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 521.
  7. See “Darkness, Spiritual in the Scripture Index on churchofjesuschrist.org
  8. Elder David A. Bednar, “Patterns of Light: The Light of Christ,” <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/inspiration/latter-day-saints-channel/watch/series/mormon-messages/patterns-of-light-the-light-of-christ-1?lang=eng> (5 October 2019).