A Mormon Perspective on Interrogating Emotions

A Mormon Perspective on Interrogating Emotions September 7, 2012

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.

Michael wrote the post, I picked the melodramatic picture

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)

Combined with the Book of Mormon ideal that serving one’s “fellow beings” is serving God (Mosiah 2:17), this is a very ecumenical interpretation of God’s inspiration. Furthermore, it is Mormon doctrine that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is True in that it possesses some things (divine authority, further light and truth, official covenants and rites) that other churches lack, other religions have Truth in their teachings – Truth to which God, through the Holy Ghost, will testify. Besides, it’s good that Mormons believe that God confirms even incomplete Truth with that Sense of Rightness, for it’s indisputable that Mormons also believe that “[God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Articles of Faith 9) To deny that others receive inspiration and spiritual knowledge because such knowledge is imperfect and incomplete would be to deny it to ourselves!

(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.

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  • Lukas Halim

    I’m having trouble understanding this. Does your term “Sense of Truth and Rightness” apply equally to a logical or scientific knowledge and to religious knowledge? Because to me, there’s are feeling accompanying logical, mathematical, or scientific understanding, but they are different from spiritual feelings and are evaluated differently.

    What is the role of reason in Mormon religious conviction? For example, do Mormon’s make arguments for the validity of the revelation to Joseph Smith using historical data? Do they have anything akin to Catholic natural theology?

    • I used the “Sense of Truth and Rightness” in a rather expansive way, encompassing both forms of knowledge you mention. I’m just skeptical as to whether humans really derive power from logical claims differently than they do from spiritual ones. Methods of ascertaining *accuracy* are disputable, but I think conviction about either form of truth claim comes in a similar fashion, if not in exactly the same way.

      Regarding your questions, one of the most prominent Mormon scriptures is Doctrine and Covenants 9:8, in which the Lord admonishes the recipient of the revelation to “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.” There is a strong feeling that spiritual knowledge can only come after careful pondering. However, we do not have anything akin to natural theology; the LDS Church has never really been interested in using philosophy to expound upon its tenets.

      And you’d have to explain how one could “make arguments for the validity of the revelation to Joseph Smith using historical data.” Are you talking about using archaeology to support the Book of Mormon? Or testing Smith’s predictions against later historical developments? Or something else?

      • Irenist

        “[T]he LDS Church has never really been interested in using philosophy to expound upon its tenets.”
        Any prospect that might change?

        • Probably not. The focus, beyond providing scripture, is mainly geared toward lived religion and community. There are no paid pastoral, ministerial, or theologian positions in the LDS Church, and there is no requirement of formal training to become a leader. (Present-day apostles include lawyers, judges, surgeons, business owners, professors, and so forth; no philosophers.) It will be interesting, however, to see how the LDS Church interacts with LDS academics in the future. For instance, church authorities seem to have become more open to histories that confront the more controversial aspects of Mormon history and belief.

        • Probably not. Mormons tend to believe that mankind is strongly tempted to use philosophy as a substitute for relationship to God. There are Mormon philosophers and quasi-theologians, but they don’t have any significant role in the Mormon movement.

          • Irenist

            “Mormons tend to believe that mankind is strongly tempted to use philosophy as a substitute for relationship to God. ”
            Intriguing. As a Catholic, I’ve come across Orthodox and Protestant apologists who make similar arguments when complaining about, e.g., Scholasticism.

          • I have had fellow parishioners (in an evangelical-ish church) tell me that I should be careful about my forays into philosophy: philosophy is interesting and fun, but ultimately unable to address the truth because God is incomprehensible. In retrospect, what strikes me as odd about this claim is that we are all doing some kind of philosophy anyway; the difference is whether we are making our cognitive process (I won’t say “reasoning”) explicit or not. Philosophy, done well, is part of that making-explicit, and there is no reason a Christian should reject the making-explicit process. (Goodness knows it seems necessary in other parts of a life of faith.) I suppose part of the problem is an incredible investment in the idea of a transparent Scripture: you read it and you know what it means. There may be interpretive work in its application, but not in basic comprehension. What’s particularly saddening (to me, a Protestant who’s tended towards the older and more historically aware denominations) is that this seems to be a move away from Protestantism’s roots, which recognized the possibility of misreading and, therefore, the need for readers to interpret and reason.

          • I don’t think Mormon distrust of philosophy comes from the idea of a transparent reading of scripture as much as a fear that it will torque doctrine in incorrect ways (“teach for doctrine the commandments of men, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof”) or put the emphasis of faith in the wrong place.

      • Lukas Halim

        “I’m just skeptical as to whether humans really derive power from logical claims differently than they do from spiritual ones.”
        A statement like this is so odd to me that I don’t really know what to say. Different areas of study have different types of truth and different types of certainty associated with them. Stepping away from theology for a second, a mathematical proof is different from a scientific study. With science, a set of observations can confirm or falsify a theory, but there is always the possibility that a different experiment or observation will falsify a theory which originally appeared true. The same is not true with math – if a proof is valid, it is not possible that you’ll find another proof later that will disprove the theorem. Different forms of reasoning and experience yield different truth of different certainty. Ethics is different from physics, history is different from mathematics, and religious experience is different from literary criticism. All of them get to truth, but I don’t understand how you can say you are skeptical that “humans really derive power from logical claims differently than they do from spiritual ones.”

        “Are you talking about using archaeology to support the Book of Mormon? Or testing Smith’s predictions against later historical developments?”
        Yes, that sort of thing. For example, with traditional Christianity people will argue that the gospels do not conflict with nonbiblical historical sources (Josephus or Tacitus) or with archaeology. I think I’ve seen some Morman’s argue for the credibility of the Kinderhook Plates… that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

        • Notice I’m not talking about accuracy, or judging facticity. There are different methods of judging that. I’m talking about being convinced or motivated by something.

          And yes, there are Mormons that do argue from those standpoints (though the Kinderhook Plates are a pretty poor example). There’s been a definite move away from Book of Mormon archaeology, though, for a simple reason: we really don’t have the information to even know where, really, to look. More interesting are writers that analyze the Book of Mormon from the standpoint of Hebraic or Near Eastern literature.

          A good starting point for present-day Mormon apologetics is the FAIR Foundation, whose wiki can be found here: http://www.fairlds.org/ .

          • Lukas Halim

            “Notice I’m not talking about accuracy, or judging facticity. There are different methods of judging that. I’m talking about being convinced or motivated by something.”
            It seems to me that different ways to knowledge (mathematical, scientific, religious experience) feel different, they have different methodology, and they yield different types of certainty. Yes, they all convince and motivate, but that seems non-controversial, so I’m not sure if that’s what you’re saying or if you’re making a more controversial claim about the relationship between faith and reason.

            Thanks for the link to the wiki – will check it out.

          • Another approach that’s relatively new is to simply use the tools of literary analysis to treat the Book of Mormon and uncover its complexities; Grant Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon” and Joseph Spencer’s “An Other Testament: On Typology” are both fantastic examples.

      • Duwayne Anderson

        “I studied it out in my mind, and came to the clear conclusion that Mormonism is a bunch of rubbish.”

        Tell a Mormon that, and watch the excuses start to flow.

        • Not really. This isn’t a mechanical, failsafe procedure, any more than anything else human is. Maybe you are close minded. Maybe God doesn’t want you to be a Mormon. Maybe you have some priors that are getting in the way.

        • JohnH

          You appear to have missed the part where one should ask God if it is right.

      • I was with you on the main post, that there are potential “truths” to be derived from all forms of religious or spiritual convictions and that “convictions will always be untrustworthy to a degree (and in certain metrics) but nevertheless remain at the heart of human undertakings.”

        But I don’t understand this statement about logical claims and spiritual claims at all:

        I’m just skeptical as to whether humans really derive power from logical claims differently than they do from spiritual ones. Methods of ascertaining *accuracy* are disputable, but I think conviction about either form of truth claim comes in a similar fashion, if not in exactly the same way.

        Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but no amount of conviction will make 2+2=5, so how can those two forms of conviction be remotely similar in either “way” or “fashion” ?

        • All I’m saying is that the feeling of conviction of rightness is similar in matters of fact and faith, if not exactly the same. Thus, when you realize that 2+2=4 (or another mathematical truth), you might get a sense of “eureka”; that might be roughly comparable to the “aha” moment of conversion, though I would submit that there are most likely distinctions (there are in my own experience).

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Leah: This is off-topic, but I have an upcoming blog post that you might find interesting. It’s about the atheist prayer experiment hosted by the Unbelievable radio show and podcast (UK). Could I email you a copy to get your reaction? I’m planning on posting it on Monday. My contact information is on my About page. Thanks!


    • leahlibresco

      I’ll make sure to read it when you post it in the facebook group.

    • Ted Seeber

      I hope it isn’t yet another “testing prayer as a magic spell” gig. I’m sorely disappointed in materialists who think the only value of prayer is as a wish list for God to fill like Santa Claus.

  • mapman

    I think it is inaccurate to think of the Holy Ghost as just emotions in Mormonism. Mormons are taught to study things out in their minds before asking for revelation, and the Spirit is often described as imparting “pure intelligence.” It may cause emotions, but it is supposed to be actual communication with another being, God.

    • I totally agree, and this is one of the things I think I’d like to touch on in the follow-up Q&A. As I commented on the previous post, “the “study it out” and the subsequent “making sense,” I think, are often subsumed into and occluded by the “burning in the bosom,” which acts as a shorthand for both. Of course, this is not always true, but I believe that some of the characterization of Mormon conviction might come from this difference in language usage.”

  • What is the relationship between truth and reality, from the Mormon perspective?

    My sense from your post is that truth is something that God “testifies to” or “confirms,” that the “Sense of Truth and Rightness” is a gift from God. This appears to be different from the Aristotelian/Thomistic idea that truth is a natural apprehension of reality by natural faculties. (I’m not familiar enough with other epistemologies to make valid comparisons.) In other words, I’m used to thinking of truth as something intelligent beings (like humans) know through natural powers inherent in them. Is truth, according to Mormonism, something mediated by divine action? If so, is it always and everywhere mediated by divine action?

    For example, is a gift from God necessary to recognize the Pythagorean Theorem, or to rightly interpret a chemistry experiment? Is it necessary to gain insight from a work of art?

    Or have I misunderstood what you mean?

    • I don’t think you find the idea expressed in Mormonism in quite the terms you’ve put it. But Mormonism teaches that the ‘light of Christ’ pervades all space and is the source of human truth and reason, which I think is the equivalent. Purely as a descriptive or anthropological matter, Mormons put very little emphasis on the light of Christ as the source of general truth and reason. Its mostly used to explain where ‘conscience’ comes from or how ‘righteous gentiles’ can independently arrive at the truths that have been revealed to us. However, Mormons will frequently state that scientists and great thinkers were ‘inspired’ by God, which comes to much the same thing.

      • So… from a Mormon perspective, any and all insight into truth requires a direct intervention from God? (I’m stating it as extremely as possible to make sure I understand what you’re saying.)

        • I think most Mormons would disagree with that statement, if for no other reason than that the light of Christ is seen to be an influence that naturally reaches everyone. It isn’t an intervention as such, any more than the sun’s rays are a ‘direct intervention’ required to make plants grow. In other words, in Mormonism its not at all clear that the light of Christ is some kind of volitional property that can be turned on and off. But, yes, I do think that common Mormon beliefs on the light of Christ entail that all human insight into truth derives from an interaction with the divine. But Mormons do not necessarily believe the doctrines that I believe our beliefs entail.

          • Intriguing. I don’t think I understand what you mean by the phrase “the light of Christ.”

            Using your “light of the sun” analogy, the sun is the source of light which we perceive through our natural sense of sight, which is attuned to the light. So Christ is the source of insight into all truths, which is perceived by our natural reason?

            This makes sense to me from a Catholic/traditional Christian perspective, in which Jesus Christ is God the Eternally Begotten Son of God, the Word without beginning or end through Whom all things were made. But my understanding of Mormon theology/metaphysics is that Jesus Christ is one among many spirit children of Heavenly Father, who played a unique role in Heavenly Father’s plan, but is ultimately bound by time and space (he has a beginning, if not an end). If I’m understanding Mormonism correctly (a big if!) then I don’t see how this light has Christ as its ultimate source.

            Perhaps I’m putting too much of a philosophical burden on the phrase, and “light of Christ” is simply a figure of speech?

            One more question: the sun is only one source of light. There are the stars, and fires, and my LCD monitor, and so on. Are there other sources of “intellectual light” for the LDS Church? Or is this just where the analogy breaks down, as all analogies do?

            Thanks for your patience with my questions!

          • JohnH

            Christ is the source of all truths that are perceived by our intelligence yes.

            Neither Christ nor anyone of Heavenly Fathers children actually has a beginning or end. An important piece of each of us has always been around. Also, the experience of time as we experience it is not the same way that God or Christ experience time. In this creation Christ organized everything that is and this creation has a beginning and an end.

            The light of Christ is not a figure of speech but something literally comparable to light.

            Everyone has intelligence, however all truth comes from God through Christ.

          • The term “light of Christ” comes from the Book of Mormon, Moroni 7:18-19:

            “And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light 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. Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light 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.”

            The doctrinal implications of this (that people can know good and evil even when not directly worked upon by the Holy Spirit) are extrapolations on the term which, I think, in the text is non-technical. Doctrine and Covenants 93 might be influential in this matter, but I haven’t studied the development of the doctrine. I think it is pretty ill-defined, though; as I and others have noted, philosophical sophistication is not on Mormon leaders’ list of “to-dos” 😉

          • JohnH


            You might want to become more familiar with the D&C, there is more on the light of Christ in D&C 88 then in D&C 93. To start with see D&C 88:5-13 but the rest of the section has some more and it is not the only section in the D&C to address the subject. The idea is very well defined.

          • Neither Christ nor anyone of Heavenly Fathers children actually has a beginning or end. An important piece of each of us has always been around.

            I had not heard or read of this before. Thanks for clarifying!

            Is this similar to the Hindu cyclical notion of the universe? Or a Platonic/Neo-platonic exitus-reditus dynamic? Or is it a sort of eternal linear notion of progression?

          • JohnH

            The scriptures talk of one eternal round and of eternal progression. In the lessons of the missionaries and in gospel principles it is always presented as an eternal linear progression.

            Reincarnation doesn’t appear in the scriptures and has been condemned doctrinally, though Brigham Young perhaps thought it might be right but, while he was a great leader and organizer, Brigham Young is generally not a good place to look for actual doctrine.

            I believe that something closer to the Mayan notion of a divine center around which waves of order and disorder (as in a hurricane) rotate might be something closer to the truth (Mormons don’t believe in any sort of creation out of nothing, the basic elements are eternal). The scriptures though have very little on the subject, Joseph Smith’s sermons (especially King Follett and the Plurality of Gods) have a little more and it is something that is never talked about in church, many members are unaware of the sermons even existing, and many of those that are aware of the subject are uncomfortable with it.

          • I had looked over D&C 88, but I would not say that there it is “well-defined.” The most germane part of 88 to our discussion is 11-13, which reads:

            “And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is *the same light that quickeneth your understandings*; Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to bfill the immensity of space— The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”

            Much of the meaning of these passages is teased out in commentaries, though; the actual scriptural passages are relatively vague.

          • JohnH

            I guess we will have to disagree as to the vagueness of what is being said and defined as well as the importance of verses 5-10 which I also think are relevant. It is really quite easy to say something is vague to cover a host of actual opinions.

            What commentaries? Who wrote them and why should commentaries be used as opposed to studying the scriptures and then asking God as to their meaning?

          • If you’re trying to determine the meaning of the “light of Christ” through analysis of the scriptures that mention it, all you can get is a general idea; there’s no philosophical rigor there, as people are inquiring after (e.g. comparison to “natural reason”). For example, relevant to the current discussion, does *all* recognition of *any* truths (including scientific, mathematical, etc.) come through the Light of Christ, or only that of moral truths (like the function of a conscience)? Can thought or knowledge exist without the Light of Christ? Through what sort of mechanism does the Light of Christ operate? Is it proper to compare the Light of Christ to the Holy Ghost? Do people perceive the Light of Christ equally? Much of the definition of the “light of Christ” – and, indeed, its status as a technical term in itself- comes from extrapolation on those passages by Church leaders. (And that’s not a problem!)

            It’s sort of like the Veil of Forgetfulness – save that that particular Veil is a key part of LDS teaching that never makes an explicit appearance in the scriptures themselves, instead having its root completely in commentary on the Plan of Salvation.

          • JohnH

            “For example, relevant to the current discussion, does *all* recognition of *any* truths (including scientific, mathematical, etc.) come through the Light of Christ, or only that of moral truths (like the function of a conscience)? ”

            This question is part of the reason I said that verses 5-10 are also relevant. The Light of Christ is the light of truth and is in the sun, moon, stars, and earth and is the power by which they are made and the law by which all things are governed. Considering as how scientific truths are investigating things that are made and how they are governed then we have our answer.

            “Can thought or knowledge exist without the Light of Christ? ”

            Yes, and obviously so if you happened to read the rest of section 88 as I suggested, especially where the different kingdoms of glory and the one not of glory is talked about. The devil has rejected the light of Christ but still has intelligence and knowledge.

            “Through what sort of mechanism does the Light of Christ operate?”

            I am not sure what this question is asking about. The scriptures say that it is light: “the same light that shineth that giveth you light “…” which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings”. I suppose given that this light “fills the immensity of space” then it could be the CMBR but obviously the scriptures don’t go into such details.

            ” Is it proper to compare the Light of Christ to the Holy Ghost? ”

            Given that everyone has the light of Christ but that not everyone has the Holy Ghost and that the Holy Ghost was not had while Christ was ministering on the earth then the answer to this is no.

            “Do people perceive the Light of Christ equally?”

            Considering as how it is a light that shines in darkness and the darkness doesn’t perceive it then I would say no.

          • I had not heard or read of this before. Thanks for clarifying!

            Is this similar to the Hindu cyclical notion of the universe? Or a Platonic/Neo-platonic exitus-reditus dynamic? Or is it a sort of eternal linear notion of progression?

            Depends on which Mormon you talk to. My personal view (which is not widespread among my fellow Mormons) is that souls are eternal in some way comparable to the way that God is eternal, i.e., existing outside time. So being human is to be amphibious. Part time-bound, changing, and mortal; part timeless and immortal and unchanging. I admit that this leads you into all sorts of apparent paradoxes and questions that I am not prepared to address.

            I think that a lot of traditional Christian doctrine leads you in the same direction if you look at it from the right angle of view. So the difference between traditional Christianity and Mormonism would be that whether or not the soul was timeless, traditional Christians would assert that the soul was created (i.e., that it had a cause), whereas if Mormons thought in philosophical terms they would mostly assert that in some way the soul or some element of the soul did not have a cause.

  • I don’t know if I would agree with you that the Holy Ghost is bad basis for basing belief. My experience of it has gone beyond mere feelings. It is a primary experience, like reason, that is self-validating.

    Like you, I have been persuaded that some non-Mormons have had what appears to be genuine pentecostal/mystical/spiritual experience affirming then in their faith.

    Christianity, and Mormons in particular, put a lot of value on embodiment and physical existence. Particularity is a good. From that it follows that while we can still maintain that one faith expression is superior, all-things-considered, it can never be superior in all ways because it can’t ape the other faith expression’s particularity while maintaining its own.

    Mortality is inherently about limitation, which allows for meaningful choice, but which means that mortality is also inherently about tragic choices and opportunity costs. From which it follows that other faith communities will express goods, or flavors of the good, that ours cannot, because we are expressing a good that they can’t.

    There is a considerable basis in Joseph Smith’s ideas for the notion that sub species aeternitas Mormonism is ultimately meant as an umbrella for the variegated good in the world.

    • “I don’t know if I would agree with you that the Holy Ghost is bad basis for basing belief. My experience of it has gone beyond mere feelings. It is a primary experience, like reason, that is self-validating.”

      I feel that that’s what I’m trying to argue, and why I use “sense” and “conviction” instead of necessarily “emotion” when describing the action of the Holy Ghost. Moreover, I only argue that it is “untrustworthy” in certain metrics; you can’t prove it scientifically or explain it universally, so if you use such criteria to evaluate the Holy Ghost, it’ll naturally come out lacking.

  • Doragoon

    I’ve been wondering about these religious emotions for a long time, mostly because my atheist friends keep accusing me of basing all my reasoning on them. Something I have wondered is if they are a normal function of a healthy human brain. If they are, then the people who don’t have these “burning in the bosom” moments could be seen as abnormal, or disordered. If we feel they are being harmed by this lack, we could even call a lack of religious emotions a disease (like we do with autism).
    The question then becomes, what if we could cure it? Would you want to take something that would allow you to experience those religious emotions? If we can generate those emotions artificially, does that make them any less real? If these experiences were so powerful that they tended to convert atheists, would it make a difference?

    Then, because I’m a huge geek, I get to the sci-fi question. Say the first fully sentient AI achieves ignition or whatever you want to call it setting off the singularity. What do we do if one of the first things that AI says is, “I can feel God’s love”? I’m not talking about a Frank Herbert Voidship kinda thing. What if the post-singularity AIs believe in God (a power higher than themselves)? If religious feelings are a normal part of the human brain, do we fault an AI for those same feelings? Do we believe them when their experience of the divine coincides with our own? What’s it mean if they don’t?

    • JohnH

      I think it is similar to being deaf. Some that are deaf and then are offered the ability to hear take it and love it. Others refuse it because they don’t want to give up what they have in terms of being deaf. However, I am not aware of any that are deaf and refuse to admit that sound is something real, nor does anyone argue that the ability to artificially induce hearing or sound make sound any less real.

    • Alan

      There is a drug to cause the same type of emotional response – it’s called LSD. And not always being on it is not a disorder anymore than not having religion is.

      • Are you talking about the sense of oneness with the universe that some LSD users report?

        This is similar to (perhaps the same as) only one particular form of religious experience. It’s relatively rare, even among serious religious practitioners. It’s certainly not the kind of “feel the presence of God” or “I know this is right” experience that is fairly common (though still not universal) among religious people.

        Although I’ve never tried LSD, nor have I ever had a profound mystical experience, I don’t hear mystics reporting the kind or frequency of hallucinations/visions that LSD users do.

        • Alan

          Its a bit broader than that – but my point in a bit of tongue in cheek manner is that the use of psychedelic drugs to induce religious experience is a well know phenomena going back throughout human history. The idea that there is no biochemical explanation for these religious experiences is a weak one – whether that means the biochemistry is Gods way of reaching you or all religious experience is simply a natural accident is a matter of belief.

          This internet page does a decent job of covering the ground though I can’t account for the full accuracy/credibility of the source:

          • I’ll agree that there seems to be a biochemical aspect to much of religious experience. From a Catholic perspective, this makes sense because body and soul are one creature, distinct but not separable; so any spiritual act/effect would have a physical manifestation, and vice versa.

            For example, one reason for ascetic traditions (fasting, vigils, etc.) may be to biochemically “open oneself” to experiencing the divine more easily.

            The question that arises in my mind is how to distinguish the movements of the divine from the purely chemical reactions in the body.

            I would never deny God’s hand in healing a sick person, for example; but I would only declare a miracle when all natural explanations have been shown to be inapplicable. Likewise, I wouldn’t deny God’s presence in any given person’s experience, but I’m more sure of divine action in someone who has not “set themself up” for an extraordinary experience.

            Maybe I’m just too skeptical, though.

          • Irenist

            I presume that the emotional and imaginative aspects of all experiences of God have biochemical roots. So do the sensations of seeing the sun and feeling it on the skin. That doesn’t mean the sun isn’t there.

          • Alan

            So what? It doesn’t mean God is there either – it just means that we can probably explain these experiences without reference to the existence of a deity let alone a specific one (since these experiences are found across religions and attributed to very different ideas of ‘God’ it would be quite difficult to demonstrate that all but one are misinterpreting it – the most likely conclusions is that they are all misinterpreting it).

    • A lot of things are the normal function of a healthy brain: confirmation bias, certain groupthink tendencies, post hoc reasoning, assorted auditory and visual hallucinations under specific circumstances. There is no reason to suppose that typical cognition is preferable cognition, although we typically assume that it is. In fact, I would say that about 30% of this blog is made of examples of this very idea. (And that mistake is one of the reasons it is usually best to avoid the word normal: it makes it too easy to confuse typical with normative.)

    • Doragoon

      JohnH, People do disagree on the existence of a taste that they can’t taste. I do that all the time with my husband (he’s a super taster, I’m a non-taster). So might God be like a flavour some people can’t taste, written off as an explanation for other preferences.

      Alan, We need to define these spiritual experiences if LSD is what people think they are.

      Christian H, I used to have that aversion to the word normal, even stating that it’s nothing more than a setting on a washing machine. Then you read any book by Oliver Sacks, such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. My question was not if the inability to experience God emotionally is a minor problem like the inability to tell the difference between the sound of a trumpet and the sound of a pot being dropped on the floor. My question was about what if we viewed that emotional connection to God as being as important as the ability to differentiate between objects.

      A huge number, probably a majority if you include the dead, have experienced an emotional closeness to a higher being at some point in their life. Those who haven’t are like a blind man in the allegory of the cave. I don’t think that giving those people sight make anyone’s interpretations of the shadows more or less legitimate, but neither does anyone’s inability to see the shadows mean they don’t exist, or aren’t the projections of something real. After all, shadows on the wall are our only way of experiencing reality, so by what logic could we discount these feelings without discounting all of human experience?

      I’m disappointed no one responded to the sci-fi point. I know, it’s essentially, if someone managed to turn their head and see what was casting those shadows would you believe them. But I like it. It includes an element of creating the AI in our own likeness, and how we can’t agree on what elements make up that likeness. Chesterton said that the way people measure a better person is not if he’s smarter or stronger than us (Vulcans) but if they are morally superior to us. So I wonder, in creating the post-singularity AI, if the AI wasn’t morally superior to us as well as being smarter than us, would we reject their superiority or possibly even their sentience? If you believe like I do that morality requires a benevolent god, then it would make sense that the AI, being morally superior to us, would have a closer relationship to God than we do, including even more powerful emotional experiences of his presence. If the AI doesn’t experience a “burning in the bosom” , then do we question God’s existence, or do we question the superiority or sentience of the AI?

      I feel that question of the importance of these emotions is best examined by looking at implications their lack.

      • Alan

        Ok, define them. Since drug induced spirituality has been at the core of certain religious ceremonies for a long time I think you will be hard pressed to find a definition that doesn’t exclude much of what religions have seen as experiencing God without including experience had wow on various drugs.

      • If the AI doesn’t experience a “burning in the bosom” , then do we question God’s existence, or do we question the superiority or sentience of the AI?

        I think this would make a GREAT sci-fi story, with scope for lots of interesting philosophical debates and digressions 🙂 Assuming your first premise, that the AI-inventing society unanimously viewed an emotional connection to God as a non-negotiable for moral superiority, they’d probably see the machine as technically superior but morally inferior to themselves.

        To me that’s a much less interesting question than how they would respond if the machine said it DID feel that “burning in the bosom.” Would they be able to expand their definition of God to accommodate non-human entities? If so, would they rewrite their scriptures to make their God less human-oriented and more universal? Would it cause them to rethink their opinions of other non-human entities such as animals? Maybe animals feel this connection too, they just can’t express it. How would it change their theology?

        If they can’t or won’t expand their view of God to include non-human entities, their choices are to believe the AI is mistaken (defective/delusional) or lying (malicious). Suppose they go with the first option and attempt to repair or fix the AI so that it doesn’t claim this connection? (Sort of the inverse of your suggestion about fixing the absence of that connection). Hell is the absence of God; is the AI then in hell? What if they can’t shake the AI’s statement no matter what they do, and in the end their efforts cause the AI to cease to function; is the AI then a martyr? The second route (malice) of course is 99.9% guaranteed to end in the destruction of the machine as a tool of Satan 🙂

        Now go write this story, it’s fascinating 🙂

      • My question was about what if we viewed that emotional connection to God as being as important as the ability to differentiate between objects…the question of the importance of these emotions is best examined by looking at implications their lack.

        The problem with the first part of your question is that by phrasing it in this manner (“What if we viewed X as important?”) you’ve rigged the game. If we thought X was crucially important, then of course we’d see a lack of it as a problem. To use a very mundane example, lots of my friends think I’m sadly deprived for not having a Facebook account; it’s a central and important part of their lives, therefore they perceive my lack of it as a problem, a disability. This doesn’t work very well for determining the importance of things in the real world.

        I think the second part of your statement is right on, though. If you observe the effects of having X, recognize that they’re really really beneficial (or conversely, observe the effects of a lack of X as being really really bad), and conclude that therefore X is important, it makes a lot more sense.

        So what are the implications of lacking an emotional connection to God? This one seems pretty straightforward to me. Do you know people who are atheists, or non-deists, but are nevertheless good and moral and upright people? If the answer is “Yes,” then clearly the lack of an emotional connection to God has no ill effects, right?

      • “A huge number, probably a majority if you include the dead, have experienced an emotional closeness to a higher being at some point in their life.”

        OK, but my point is that a huge majority of people (ie. all of them) also commit confirmation bias on a daily basis. A huge majority of people have immersive hallucinations daily (dreams). A huge majority of people commit post hoc thinking frequently, too, and don’t know what’s wrong with that. The problem with the word “normal” that I’m focusing on isn’t about how we treat atypicality, it’s about how we treat the typical. What is typical is not always what is good. If we were to find a minority of people who never committed confirmation bias, they would be atypical, and they would function better. So when you’re looking at two possible ways of functioning (for example, feeling closeness to God, not feeling closeness to God), you cannot look to see which is most common to determine which is preferable. One just does not follow from the other.
        Incidentally, I did research this a bit in an undergraduate class. Researches have argued (and done some experiments to show) that some people have a genetic predisposition to feeling that closeness to God (or feeling one with the universe, or any other such mystical experience that correlates with particular brain activity); other people lack that predisposition. Those who lack that predisposition are not entirely barred from having it, but they are much less likely to. This research is not unanimous, of course.
        I say this as a Christian, if that is of any relevance to you. I would like, someday, to have that feeling of closeness to God that people talk about, but at this point I would not be surprised if I never did.

        • Researcher’s name is Hamer. Dean, maybe? The title of the book he wrote (and I read) is The God Gene, if I recall correctly. There. Sources cited.

    • What if the post-singularity AIs believe in God (a power higher than themselves)? If religious feelings are a normal part of the human brain, do we fault an AI for those same feelings? Do we believe them when their experience of the divine coincides with our own? What’s it mean if they don’t?

      You might want to read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. It has aliens rather than robots, but tackles some very similar questions.

      • leahlibresco

        Just got the email that the copy I placed on hold has turned up at the library.

        • Hope it inspires a blog post, would love to hear your thoughts on it.
          I think the title “Jesuits…in…Spaaaaaace” would do nicely.

        • Honestly, I found “The Sparrow” to be a fantastic, engaging book, marvelously plotted. However, one element of it really disappointed me (and this might be a spoiler, but not much of one): at no point do the Jesuits actually try to evangelize or really tackle the idea of what it would mean for the races they encounter to enter into the Christian community. Outside of their personal religious practices, they are very secular, focusing on anthropology, linguistics, botany – but never proselytization.

          It’s important to note that Russell wrote it as a sort of reflection on the first European-American contacts, striving to show that with even the best, the smartest, and the most sensitive agents, first contact situations can still go horrendously wrong. It’s about cultural ignorance and misinterpretation, not religion.

      • Doragoon

        Why are there so many stories where a Jesuit meets aliens who teach him to hate God? I know why it’s always a Jesuit. I’m wondering why aliens are either less moral than us, or worship nature (Avatar’s Merry Sioux). Are there any good moral aliens with a crystal dragon Jesus not written by Heinlein?

        • Mary Doria Russell said that she picked the Jesuits because they were the most gung-ho about engaging New World cultures (consider, for instance, the missions established among the Guarani peoples), while still fostering an academic bent and wielding rather significant financial holdings. That is: they were the most likely to jump into making contact.

        • That said, in the anthology “Monsters and Mormons” (which has overall a rather light-hearted feel) there are stories about Mormons encountering alien life. “That Leviathan, That Thou Hast Made” deals with a Mormon church official in a sun colony resolving a dispute regarding a congregant who is a member of a triple-gendered stellar being of magnetic fields, and another story deals with an Mormon missionary being abducted by aliens. Just saying 🙂

    • Ron K

      I think you kind of missed the point of your atheist friend.

      I have personally experienced those ‘burning in the bosom’ experiences, among other experiences people might call ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. The reason I’m an atheist is that I don’t consider personal experience to be of any kind of value when trying to get to truth.

      The question isn’t whether it is better to experience or not to experience X, the question is why do you consider your personal brain state to be sufficient evidence for something outside your brain?

  • This discussion does not seem to revolve around the scriptures, but I would like to introduce what the Bible says about men/women receiving spiritual knowledge by means of the Holy Ghost. What Latter Day Saints believed about a “burning in the bosom” is not foreign to the Bible.

    1Kings 19:9-12
    And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
    Hebrews 4:11-12
    Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief.
    For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
    Luke 24:28-32
    And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?
    1 Corinthians 12:2-3
    Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.
    Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
    1 Corinthians 2:9-13
    But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
    But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
    For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.
    Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
    Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
    1Cor. 1:4-7
    I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:

    2Cor. 2:2-3

    Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:
    Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the
    Jeremiah 20:19
    Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.

    • While the “hearts burning within us” notion is not foreign to traditional Christianity, neither is it seen (by Catholics, at least,) as the primary means of knowledge or experience of conversion. Indeed, until probably the Enlightenment, the “experience” of truth – religious or otherwise – was not really a major question. Epistemology was more a matter of mechanics than metaphysics. Experiences (emotional or sensory or intellectual) were largely taken simply as what we now might call data, and subjected to rational examination or poetic expression or often both – although sustained examinations of experience such as St. Augustine’s “Confessions” were extremely rare.

      • JohnH

        Justin Martyr had his heart burning within as the primary reason for his conversion.

        Rather then bringing in a lot more scriptures primarily from the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians, I will instead ask a question.When it says that no one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost and that the things of God are known only by the Spirit what exactly do you think it is trying to say and how does it relate to your assertion that the Spirit is not the primary means of conversion?

        • I didn’t say that the Holy Spirit is not the “primary means” (I would say “agent”) of conversion; I simply said that the experience of a burning heart, or of a “sense of rightness”, was not what was emphasized in the conversion narratives.

          Rather, what was emphasized was the personal encounter: Paul encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus; or Augustine encountering the child’s voice in the garden; or even Peter catching our Lord’s eye in the courtyard when the cock had crowed.

          I don’t want to deny that the recognition of a truth is an important part of conversion, nor that the experience of assenting to a truth is a profound epistemological question. I simply note that, for most of Christian history, this aspect was not seen as the primary or critical aspect of conversion. Rather, the emphasis was on engaging in a relationship – and even then, in a relationship that implied mutual roles and responsibilities (“Lord” or “Bridegroom” or “Father”) rather than the emotional bonds of relationship that we tend to emphasize today.

  • I would say that the ‘burning in the bosom’ is how the encounter with the Holy Ghost spills over into the body.

  • Rachel

    Hello again, Lea

    I think Michael certainly has a point. We cannot wholly discount the role of emotion in conversion because we are flesh-and-blood human beings and thus our emotions are an integral part of our natures. But I still stubbornly maintain that emotions are fickle and variable and not to be trusted.

    The writings contained in the Philokalia contain many exhortations about the importance of controlling the Passions. What they mean by the Passions is any impulse, emotion or stray thought that happens to us. Some of the writers whose works are in the Philokalia argue that the Passions are inherently evil and thus in order to attain to Dispassion, one must eliminate the Passions. Others argue that the Passions are neither good nor evil so therefore to attain to Dispassion one must channel those passions so that they can aid growth in holiness.

    So, in terms of the subject at hand, having a “burning in the bosom” or a “flame enkindled in the heart” raises the question of whether that burning or enkindling does indeed come from God. Determining that requires watchfulness, discrimination and the Jesus Prayer. This is simply an expansion of the Pauline idea of “testing the spirits” within the context of the writings in the Philokalia. The Philokalia is third in importance for me as a written spiritual guide, after the Bible and the Rule of St. Benedict.

    Watchfulness, or Attentiveness, would be the action of keeping an eye on one’s inner thoughts and fantasies. Discrimination refers to discerning which thoughts are from God or not. It is a gift more athan anything else. The Jesus Prayer is, well,. The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Some people co-ordinate its recitation with their brieathing and/or recite it upwards of a thousand times a day.

  • Adam G.

    Here’s an LDS philosopher giving a presentation on religious experience in the Mormon context and why its can give a valid warrant for belief: