It’s a guest post by Michael Haycock! He blogs aperiodically at Not a Tame Lion, and helped clear up factual questions about Romney’s priesthood along with more abstract questions about Mormon theology of priesthood the last time he guestblogged here. Now he’s popping in to talk about conversions than win over hearts as well as minds in the light of a recent On the Square piece.
It is a typical indictment of Mormon proselytization and practice that it’s all predicated on untrustworthy or contentless feeling or sentiment. There is sometruth to this characterization. Arguably the most important statement of the ethos of Mormon missionary work is from the last chapter of the Book of Mormon:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:4-5)
Descriptions of these manifestations of the Holy Ghost come from other scriptures, such as Doctrine and Covenants 8:2 (“Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart”) or the “still small voice” Elijah hears on the mount. The above complaint, then, is not baseless; nor is it without reason. As Leah points out, it can be very easy for people to misread emotional responses; and converts to all sorts of faith testify to similar impressions of Truth and Rightness.
However, I would argue that this Sense of Truth and Rightness, whether it comes as the stereotypical Mormon “burning in the bosom” or as a peace felt at discordant thoughts coming into harmony, is necessary for any human conviction to exist. One problem arises, then, when people try to rename this Sense in universalizable language -such as logic, reasonability, ridiculousness, absurdity, common sense, and so forth- and thus elide the essential fact that heuristics of reasonability and ridiculousness derive their power (but not their accuracy) from feeling True and Right. In a post-Enlightenment age, for example, scientific demonstrability is one way of achieving that Sense of Truth and Rightness. Bits of information mean little unless connected to this Sense.
In fact, if typical Mormons are guilty of anything, it’s not of overemphasizing the emotive aspects of conversion or using them to manipulate; instead, we’re probably guilty of dismissing the emotive aspects of others’ conversions (or deconversions). On my mission, I encountered plenty of people who felt his sort of conviction about their own faith traditions. As I refused to attribute those feelings to Satanic deception (which is very unfortunately too often the explanation for other religions’ success in some Mormon and Evangelical circles), I was forced to ask myself why God would be so ecumenical, as Leah termed it.
Luckily, Mormon scripture deals with this question, even if it doesn’t extrapolate into a multi-religious world. Mormon, the editor of the book that bears his name, once explains that
that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. (Moroni 7:13)
(Never mind the fact that even Joseph Smith is quoted as saying that had he not lived through what he said he had, he wouldn’t have believed it. It’s definitely not antithetical to or inexplicable in Mormon belief that people convert to other faiths.)
I’ve even toyed with the idea that God operates in most, if not all, religions for the good of His children; there are some things some religions can do that others can’t. For instance, the Mormon missionary program strictly follows the laws of nations not sharing literature where it is illegal or where it would be unduly dangerous for converts. As a centralized church, we have a lot to lose from being cracked down on by antagonistic governments. On the other hand, many Protestant Christian churches spread a version of Jesus Christ’s gospel behind ostensibly closed borders.
On a more basic level, however, I would argue that it is essential that humans experience holy envy, a term coined by Harvard Divinity’s Krister Stendahl to mean, roughly, deep respect or admiration for aspects of other faiths that one’s own faith lacks – perhaps including, I would add, this feeling of Truth. There are insights I believe are True that I’ve gotten from study of Catholic Gothic ecclesiastical architecture and liturgy and from Muslim fasting and prayer traditions, among others. We miss a lot of richness (and flatten much of the human race) when we limit ourselves to only looking through our own glasses, darkly.
Addressing human fallibility in understanding emotions, I’m not sure if there’s any way around it. No matter how we try to explain that Sense of Truth and Rightness -if we can explain it at all in human language- we cannot assert that it is universally experienced in the same way across individuals and times. For me, all I can say is that there’s a feeling I get from typically “spiritual” experiences (whether deep contemplation of soteriology or realizing another human being is not an Other) that isn’t present in other circumstances. And generally I hold a conviction that God loves humanity and humans in the ways Mormonism describes Him as loving us – as a parent who attempts to persuade us toward Him and His attributes through imperfect human mouthpieces, roughly speaking. That of necessity includes statements made by Joseph Smith, or found in LDS scripture. Without some degree of that conviction, which is typically called “testimony” in Mormonspeak, I wouldn’t dedicate so much of my time and energy to my faith. I think few people would – in any faith.
In short, I think that any derogation of spiritual conviction as a motivation for conversion (or deconversion) is at best myopic and at worst hypocritical, and that while human fallibility should be considered, the fact stands that convictions will always be untrustworthy to a degree (and in certain metrics) but nevertheless remain at the heart of human undertakings.