What happens when you find a blog by a friend with gorgeous pictures and intriguing titles? You read it, and hopefully enjoy the fact that your friend is a famous blogger.
What happens when the blog turns out to be misleading and simply wrong, despite the purple passages and the beautiful graphics? It makes me sad to find this blog by one of my good friends, Lon Young, whose questions and analogies characterize the Church I love as provincial and excluding. Experiences with the Holy Spirit and searching for God and His truth are huge human endeavors, yet in Lon’s blog these complexities have been oversimplified and contorted into dichotomies that do not exist.
Below (in italics) is the bulk of Lon Young’s blog from “Buddha in the Beehive” and Postcard #4 about the One True Orchard. (https://buddhainthebeehive.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/postcards-from-a-spiritual-journey-postcard-4/) My pushback comments, loving corrections, and suggestions for rethinking some of his ideas are in a different sized text. I publish my own ideas not to argue with Lon, but to give his audience (and those who may read my blog) a more balanced and fairer view of what it means to feel the Holy Spirit both as any seeker of truth and goodness, and as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If the One True Orchard in his parable is the Church with its saving ordinances, I do not apologize for asking people who have had spiritual experiences to continue seeking, and in so doing, eventually find a witness to the divinity of the Church.
Here’s Lon’s posting (in italics):
The story [Parable of the Orchard included in his blog], of course, is mine. And it’s the story of millions of other Mormons whose testimony of the exclusive validity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rooted in a genuine, personal experiences with sweetness. We tend to interpret these spiritual experiences as a kind of celestial variation that our church must be right.
Ahh! Here’s the statement of what Lon sees as the problem: “that our church must be right” – but is it really a problem? What is right? That the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the church established by Jesus Christ and through his power restored to earth today? That is a bold assertion that clearly differentiates the Church as an institution that can and does claim to be “right” by being Christ’s Church.
Back to Lon: Let me explain.
As Latter-day Saints, we are taught that spiritual feelings, such as a “burning of the bosom,” or a peaceful assurance, can be understood as personal revelations from God witnessing that our church–and only our church—is true.
This isn’t a very clear, nor complete explanation. Witness of the Spirit can be about any number of things – personal revelation is certainly more than whether or not the church is “true” – although that is one thing that the Holy Ghost can witness (see above).
Lon continues, As a young man, whenever those feelings came to me as a boy—whether singing hymns, reading sublime passages of scripture, engaged in sincere prayer, or passing the sacramental bread up and down rows of saintly white-haired widows–they confirmed I was in God’s One True Church.
Later, as a missionary, this became the logic by which we persuaded others: If someone felt spiritual feelings, it was offered up as proof that our church was true, meaning that the totality of our teachings, practices, scriptures, organizational structure, and founding narratives were divinely and uniquely inspired. This was not done manipulatively; we genuinely understood this as the divine “pattern” for how God would let people know they should become Mormons. Let’s say, for example, that we invited an investigator to read from the Book of Mormon, perhaps the passage where Jesus is blessing the children. It’s not that simple (as any missionary will tell you). To get a confirmation that the Book of Mormon is true, one needs to read and understand Moroni’s promise (Moroni 10: 4-5) and actually read and study the Book of Mormon to understand its doctrine, stories, and principles. Then in earnest prayer, to ask if the Book of Mormon is truly what it purports to be – an actual record of an ancient people who wrote to testify of Christ.
If they felt a surge of love and goodness after reading that part, then I guided them into understanding that (1) the Spirit had just witnessed that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record; and therefore, (2) Joseph Smith was a true prophet; and therefore, (3) all his teachings are from God; and therefore, (4) our church has the only legitimate claim to the priesthood authority; and therefore, (5) all other churches are false.
Oh, would that it were that simple! There is a chain of testimony, but not hinged on a simple warm feeling about Jesus. It is true that once an investigator feels the Holy Spirit whisper to them that the Book of Mormon is true, then it is easy to see Joseph Smith and his story is also true. If Joseph Smith was a prophet raised up by God to restore Christ’s church, then the Church should have all the earmarks of the primitive Christian church that Christ set up, one of which is apostles and another priesthood authority. And if the Holy Spirit witnesses that this is true, wouldn’t a person want to be part of Christ’s restored church?
Don’t apologize for (nor minimize) this chain of testimony – these are fundamental truths that do indeed point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indeed His church.
When it comes to spiritual experiences, I’m no cynic. I unabashedly admit that these experiences have enriched my life. But am I justified in citing those experiences as proof that my beliefs are legitimate while someone else’s are not?
Legitimacy of beliefs? Define your terms, please. Paul, when Saul, certainly had sincere beliefs about the illegitimacy of Christianity, but does the sincerity of his beliefs save him from the heavenly reproof from the Savior Himself? Should beliefs of God, the joy of the restored Gospel, and the divinity of his Church – fundamental “beliefs” that LDS saints hold – be suspect simply because others believe in a different God or a different church?
Here’s why this is problematic. Firstly, the chain of reasoning itself is deeply flawed: the reality of “A” does not necessarily prove the truth of “B,” “C,” and “D.” Secondly, these supernal feelings don’t just manifest in Mormon contexts. I know people from other faiths who cite their own sacred experiences as proof that their beliefs are correct.
How to account for this? Well, I used to chalk it up to their propensity for self-deception—a vulnerability to which members of my faith were somehow immune.
You are setting up a straw-man argument. No one disagrees that other people outside the LDS faith can have (should have) sacred experiences. There is no self-deception in regard to sacred truths. Many people – even before the restoration of the Church – have had witnesses of sacred truths. God wants all people to come unto Him. Isn’t it a blessing that we can give those who are truly seeking more light and knowledge? We add to their spiritual experiences with the fuller light and deeper communion with the truths of the Gospel.
Now I’ve found myself “feeling the Spirit” both inside and outside a Mormon context: meditating with Buddhists; reciting scripture sacred to Hindus; listening to the liturgical chant of Benedictine monks; attending a Suquamish tribal funeral; visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; holding signs at Pride Parades that express God’s love; participating in the Episcopalian Eucharist; awakening to a neighborhood mosque’s call to prayer in Jaipur; visiting Gandhi’s ashram in New Delhi. Each of these moments invokes its own sense of grace, of devotion, love, and peace. No argument here. Again, the Holy Spirit can be poured out on many different peoples, and create many spiritual experiences to the seeking.
I have had similar experiences – witnesses from the Holy Spirit that the bounties and beauties of nature are works of God, that the vaulted cathedrals of Europe, with their sleeve-worn casements and hollowed steps to the altars from a thousand years of devotion are steeped in reverence, that the majesty of the stars and movement of the planets bespeak of a higher Power, that Verdi’s Requiem or Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony are a sublime expression of the verities of our eternal nature. One does not need to be a Latter-day Saint to know that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” and yearn for aesthetic experiences and spiritual epiphanies that we all can experience.
So what shall I make of those unbounded, profligate feelings? (Are your spiritual experiences merely “unbounded, profligate feelings”? I hope not.) Should I interpret them as the Holy Ghost prompting me to flip-flop from one religion to another? Is it possible that, if these feelings do have a divine provenance, perhaps a heavenly Seal of Approval is getting stamped liberally across everything that’s good? And what if neuroscientists are right, that humans are hard-wired for these sort of phenomena? Should my own subjective experiences, while precious to me, be privileged above another’s subjective experience?
These are not easy questions, and I don’t have any definitive answers to them.
Here’s some answers: If Paul speaks of seeking after every good thing, then of course the Holy Spirit is involved. If Mormon teaches that “all good things come from God” and we are instructed to “lay hold of every good thing” (Moroni 7), then it is by the grace of God we come to know the aesthetically pleasing, the divine in others, and even the way to act and become like the Master of all Good.
To say there are no definitive answers to our search for good is to give up too easily. To label your spiritual experiences as just “subjective experiences” or as random and ungoverned feelings (“unbounded and profligate”), then you diminish the gifts of the Spirit. Your lists (and mine) describe times of epistemological, soul-stretching growth as you experience the “good” of God.
Here’s one other possible answer to your “not easy questions”: you have the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and so you are entitled to a different quality (and quantity) of spiritual experiences about eternal principles, which will privilege your experiences above others who do not (yet) have the Gift of the Holy Ghost.
And maybe I have better questions: Why does God give us the Holy Spirit in the first place? What do spiritual experiences tutor us about the Holy Spirit? How can one be enlightened and find truth through spiritual experiences? And ultimately for what purpose are we given spiritual experiences?
If a search for goodness, beauty, and truth is a spiritual quest, then it becomes as well a religious one. And that leads to Christ. If He is indeed the Redeemer of the entire world, all spiritual quests will come to acknowledge His reality. There is nothing provincial or limiting in that, and although the Church has never purported to hold all truth and beauty, nor all spiritual experiences and goodness, it is the instrument through which one can come and be saved by Christ. A simple truth that is totally inclusive, after all.
(A painting of the Tree of Life by Annie Henrie)
My heart tells me that spiritual experiences are not exclusive experiences that prove something is true, but are universal experiences that witness something is good.
Catchy parallelism, but if you don’t apologize for seeking for truth (in religion, specifically), then of course you can use spiritual experiences to determine what is truth – knowledge of “things as they really are, and things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).
And let’s not forget the Source of good: “Whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. I am the same that leadeth men to all good; he that will not believe my words will not believe me—that I am; . . . I am the light and the life and the truth of the world” (Ether 4:12). Christ is unequivocally, unapologetically the end of our spiritual search. His divinity and His reality is what draws men to search after good.
Whatever their source, I continue to cherish the feelings I’ve come to associate with the Spirit. I continue to cultivate the attitudes and habits of mind that lead me to feel more love and more compassion and more joy in the happiness of others. These are the Fruits of the Spirit. To me, they are sweet above all that is sweet.
I’m grateful for the Orchard that surrounds me. And I’m grateful for the Orchards that surround us all.
And I am also grateful for the Spirit. “For the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not.” You speak of roads leading to God, and indeed, the Spirit “leadeth men to all good,” and in so doing, bring men to Christ. Howsoever different groups of people sense the divine and strive for goodness in their lives, eventually they will go one road further in coming to the world’s Redeemer. We cherish their goodness, we rejoice in their seeking, and we add to their spiritual quests by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.