Figuring Out the “Reluctant, Resistant, and Hurting Mormon” Part 4

 

“We Are All Sick in Our Own Way”

In April 2015 Elder Renland (then a Seventy) tells of two women who after South African apartheid ended, “black and white members of the Church were permitted to attend church together.  For many, the equality of interaction between the races was new and challenging.  One time, as Julia and Thoba attended church, they felt they were treated less kindly by some white members.  As they left, Thoba complained bitterly to her mother.  Julia listened calmly until Thoba had vented her frustration.  Then Julia said, ‘Oh, Thoba, the Church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way.  We come to church to be helped.’”

we are all sick

 

How to react to someone who has been offended?  We can feel righteous indignation and commiserate, we can dismiss it out of hand, or we can change our perspective and do what Julia did:  give people room to learn and grow and come to terms with their own spiritual struggles.

Offenses and the spiritual pain they inflict are real.  Some may be unintentional, done in ignorance or small-mindedness.  Some may be small, others compounding, some egregious and harmful to our spiritual well-being.  How do we deal with the pain around us?  How do we deal with our own hurt?

Once a home teacher came to our home (without his partner, which may have ameliorated the offense) and talked to my husband all through the visit, even though I was sitting right next to my husband.  This representative of the Church never made eye contact with me, never addressed his questions to me about how things were going, never even noticed I was in the room.  At that point in time, I was dealing with other hurts and the perceived slights of sexism, so I was particularly offended by his neglect.

But I got over it.  With time, I could see how we are all feeble instruments in building up Zion – people full of cultural baggage and biases, and this neighbor was no different.  “We are all sick in our own way.”

It took time and learned patience with my neighbor to get over the offense.  And when I came to see that my causes to be offended were not nearly as large as others, I could reach out as well.  To the sister down the road who was abandoned by her husband and felt she could not face the “judgment” in the eyes of others, or the neighbor who was told his chronic depression was a sign he wasn’t living the gospel, or other members of the ward with similar issues and problems – these offenses were far larger, and my own concerns seemed trivial.

We go to church to be helped.  Alma’s admonition about what it means to be baptized comes to mind – a proactive reaching out to those who are mourning, needing comfort, need burdens lightened (Mosiah 18: 9-13).

And the results of this covenant of baptism are especially worth noting:  “That he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (vs. 10).  The Holy Spirit is the healing balm, the reason we can overcome our offenses and have patience with those who may be the cause of our offense.  The ultimate objective after all, is so that like Alma’s people, “there was no contention one with another but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.”

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Maybe we need to remember that this baptismal covenant works for unity among all the Saints of God.  Maybe the best way to overcome offense is the reliance on the Holy Ghost found through our baptismal covenant.  In that regard, we go to the “hospital” of the church, taking the sacrament, striving for understanding and forgiveness, and receiving the healing balm of the Holy Ghost.

We all need forgiveness and we all need patience – both for the offender as well as the offended.  As Elder Renlund concluded,

“If we do not give others the opportunity to change at their own pace, we are simply pretending to be Latter-day Saints”

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Figuring Out the “Reluctant, Resistant, and Hurting Mormon” Part 3

Line Upon Line — Personal Revelation and Growth

What-is-spirituality

A poster recently added her part to a doctrinal issue, understanding some basics that many of us forget in our rush to comment on the “mysteries.”  Then she said something very profound:  “Thanks for letting me go my own way to work this out. . . .”

What I took that to mean is that she is relying on the support of other members around her to work things out in her own mind, to come to an acceptance of some principle she hasn’t fully embraced.  I cheer her for her efforts to continue the journey.

Sometimes we forget this church is unique in personal revelation; not only are we able to find divine truths individually, but we are expected to do so.  The Lord will reveal to us light and understanding little by little.  In Joseph Smith’s words,

“We gain knowledge of eternal truths a little at a time; we can learn all things as fast as we are able to bear them.”

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But here’s the problem: we have both frustrating impatience for answers as well as a natural need to make sense of the data. So we share, and we blog, and we post our opinions.  Sometimes they help, but mostly they show our impatience and imperfect understandings.  In a perfect world, this impatience and need to know should be tempered with an ignorance-induced humility.  But it often isn’t.

Here’s an example:

Years ago when the DNA evidence showed the Native Americans in the New World were not linked to the Middle East and Bible lands peoples, many people took the tentative results of a few studies and interpreted that to mean the Book of Mormon had to be a hoax – no DNA evidence of Lehi’s family.  Human nature teaches to come to conclusions, to make patterns and inferences from data.  And so in the minds of too many, speculative inferences “proved” the LDS claim that Native Americans came from Lamanites.  There was a frustrating impatience for answers.

DNA

But President Hinckley got it right when he was asked about the DNA problem, “We don’t know enough yet.”  Those with a little more patience and tolerance for ambiguity in the matter discovered the DNA evidences are grossly overstated, and indeed, even now we don’t know the whole story.

Do the ABCD haplogroups of DNA prove the Book of Mormon Lamanites did not exist?  As John Tvedtnes has suggested, “The real importance of these [N, or ‘other’ haplogroups] and X in general is that more haplogroups have been discovered since the original ABC (which expanded to ABCD, then added X, with others unclassified and usually labeled ‘other’). This suggests that one cannot close the door on more such discoveries, as some of the critics suggest” (this quotation is fittingly downloaded from http://en.fairmormon.org/FAIR_Errata, showing that even here, scholars continually update our knowledge).

If we are active learners, we often work on the edge of our knowledge as we stretch to learn, and that leaves us both perilously shaky, vulnerable to speculation, but it likewise allows us to exercise faith in the yet unknown. It seems to me that means being careful that we don’t latch onto the first easy answer, nor take man-made ideas (speculation) for remedies in our thirst to know, but continue to press forward, relying on the Lord to help us know (faith).  You only have to read posters and their conclusions when they write about why we know so little about our Heavenly Mother, for example.  Everyone has an answer.  Most have become Mormon folklore (“a friend of a friend told me. . .”).  Pure speculations.  The Lord does expect you to reason things out, but then to rely on the Spirit to let you personally know (and personal revelation broadcasted on the internet makes me cringe).

We may have partial answers, some Spirit-guided impressions, or possibly no answers at all.  That requires patience and faith.  And waiting on the Lord also requires humility – a kind of cure-all for sophistry and impatience. (But that’s another blog.)

In other words, Joseph Smith said it best when he reminded us:

“It is not wisdom that we should have all knowledge at once presented before us; but that we should have a little at a time; then we can comprehend it.”

 

 

 

Figuring Out the “Reluctant, Resistant, and Hurting Mormon” Part 2:

Dealing with the Hurt

girl at window

These blogs are a method of working through the pain we encounter as members of our faith go through doubt and despair – either as we witness the shaken faith of a friend or loved one, or as we come to terms with our own resistance towards doctrine, principles, or policies.

First, reminders are necessary:

  • Labels can be off-putting but helpful. No one wants to be labeled as a “resistant” or “reluctant” anything, particularly if it’s about one’s deepest held beliefs. But to view the hurt in terms of how we approach our spiritual growth, sometimes we must admit that we are reluctant in getting sblue girl reflectionpiritually involved or resistant in heart-felt pleas to move forward.
  • Self-reflection and honest appraisal of our gospel fortitude may be painful, but is so necessary. How would you rate your own resiliency, patience, faith?
  • Not everyone’s hurt is the same. A principle that may offend one person (ie. not praying to our Heavenly Mother, polygamy in early Church history, importance of restored Priesthood authority), may be unimportant in another’s scheme of things. Some hurts can be mollified by thoughtful answers to change misperceptions, but other hurts need the balm of Gilead – prayer, love, the Holy Spirit, and plenty of time.
  • The saddest stories are those who give up. One “post-Mormon” blogger admits after years of prayers and study, he was no longer interested in finding answers. A form of spiritual suicide in giving up the will to live by the Spirit? If mortality is an eye-blink, we certainly cannot give up our faith and desire to reach out to God in this life – even if meanwhile you feel hurt.
  • Cynicism, sarcasm, or making fun of the sacred is the death knell for spiritual promptings. It may feel like a jaded view protects us from hurt, but it’s just hard-heartedness.

But why do we hurt? Cognitive dissonance – the buzzword among struggling Saints – means we have times when we come up against things that don’t jive – a competing “cognition” that doesn’t fit our worldview. Dissonance creates tension, and we seek to resolve the tension. Ultimately we have four ways to do it (Michael Ash Fair Mormon Podcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuZy4QtItXM) :
1. Ignore the dissonance (new idea is not important to you)
2. Reject the competing idea or cognition (new idea reads false)
3. Accept the competing idea and reject previous cognition or idea
4. Add additional ideas or cognitions to the original cognition
It appears that the third method of dealing with cognitive dissonance is the reason for a “shaken faith syndrome.” This rejecting of previous ideas may be legitimate (ie. B. H. Roberts believing all Native Americans came from Lamanites ), but rejecting ideas may run the risk of throwing out gospel truths because they just don’t “feel” right – especially if one is already vulnerable to black and white thinking or impatient for answers.
There is much to be said about the problems with impatience, or problems of speculation, for example, relying on Mormon folklore and Mormon (and “post” Mormon) bloggers or posters instead of the hard work of study and personal revelation. In that regard, the fourth method of dealing with cognitive dissonance seems the most powerful one – patience, scholarship, and sincere seeking.
Meanwhile, looking at the reasons for hurting allows us to help “reluctant” or “resistant” Mormons or to help ourselves when we are hurting, resistant, and reluctant. Like my middle school students, those who hurt will learn and progress if given sympathetic acknowledgement of their pain, and encouragement that the Lord will heal.

Walter Rane Help thou my unbelief
“Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief” (Mark 9:17) means doubt is real and inevitable. Yet exercising faith in God – through the pain, and especially because of the pain – ultimately is the best medicine for the hurt.

“Why Am I Angry Because Of My Brethren?”

AngryWoman 3

One of the pivotal moments in my spiritual growth has become a touchstone for dealing with others, especially when I have been offended.  It was a simple event:  a presenter at a very early Women’s Conference at BYU.  I don’t even remember her name, nor have I heard of her since, and the presentation she gave was at the time probably only one of several good and worthwhile sessions.  I wish I could thank her for the effect her words have had on me.  Her presentation has stuck with me for decades, and whenever I have cause to be offended by anyone, particularly leadership in the church, I think of her story.

The presentation was titled “Why Am I Angry Because Of My Brethren?” taken from the Psalm of Nephi.  In it, the presenter first explained about the strange question Nephi poses.

Of all the pnephiroblems Nephi faced, he had more than ample cause to be angry by what his older brothers did to him.  In fact, since they tried to kill him multiple times, to be angry seemed a mild reaction.  Yet he counted it as the sin that made him cry out “O, wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of my iniquities” and later he states his sin: “Why am I angry because of my enemy?” (2 Nephi 4:17, 27)

 

This sister then told of her animosity towards LDS church leadership.  I don’t recall the cause of her unhappiness, but it was something that had roused her in a deep feminist anger against them.  She said she could hardly contain her anger as she looked at the photo page of the General Authorities, all lined up in suits and ties – and all men.

She went on to say that as a journalist, she was able to schedule an appointment with one of the Twelve Apostles.  Finally!  She was able to confront one of the Brethren, and she was prepared.  She had a pad and pen, sat down, and found herself shaking, not with fright but with anger.

Then things changed.  Dramatically.  Whether it was the warm greeting, the attentive and caring demeanor, or the words of love and concern, suddenly she felt the Savior’s love.  These men, these Brethren were not the enemy.  The room was filled with the Spirit, and her anger was gone.

She now could see why Nephi berated himself – to be angry at one’s enemy (or in her case Brethren) was a besetting sin.  She could feel Nephi’s anguish as hers, when he says, “Yea, why should I give way to the temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul?” (vs. 27).  Anger against another human being, be they brothers or General Authorities, destroys one’s peace and separates one from the love of the Savior.

This woman bore her testimony that the love of the Savior is real, that it is necessary, and even more, that it allowed her to forgive the offenses she felt.  She also bore her testimony that the Brethren are the Savior’s emissaries of His love, and that they are leading the Savior’s church.

When I read President Uctdorf’s conference talk “Come Join with Us” (October 2013), I hear him plead with those who have been hurt or offended, or feel the Brethren are wrong, like this sister did.   I feel the same healing balm that she felt, when he remarks:

“As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and as one who has seen firsthand the councils and workings of this Church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny.”

Why am I angry with my Brethren?  Why indeed.

 

Figuring Out the “Resistant Mormon” Part 1: Provenance of Ideas

This is the first part of a series of blogs on how to react to members of the Church of Jesus Christ who say and do things contrary to truth and testimony — I label them “Resistant Members” because they don’t feel comfortable with some aspect of LDS doctrine, policy, Church leadership, or other things that may put their testimonies at risk.

book with heart
I love to read the works of scholars

Provenance of Ideas

I loved working on my doctorate.  I wanted to find out why a student could persist on a difficult writing assignment and another student would give up so easily.  When I finally got to work on my dissertation, I was excited to be admitted to the fellowship of scholars and to be allowed to contribute to the field of writing pedagogy with my own research.

First, I did a survey of what was out there related to my question.  I discovered half a dozen excellent summary articles related to my field of study.  They gave me extensive bibliographies—pages and pages—of the best scholars and articles in the field.  From my extensive reading I ran into many of these scholars over and over again.  I could easily name off two dozen or so scholars who created a legacy of exciting innovations, descriptions of effective pedagogy, and new ideas that needed to be explored.  These scholars and their studies gave a depth and clarity to questions I began forming, and ultimately allowed me to formulate and create my particular study built on prior scholarly work.

But everyone has an opinion on how to teach literacy.  In fact, Bill Gates at the time told us teachers that we did not have any good scholarship or answers on how to teach effectively, and that he was now (with his “think-tank” of paid businessmen) going to tell us how to do it.  And online posts of “magic bullets” for teaching literacy continue to fill the internet – seldom posted by scholars.

So whose scholarship should be trusted?  Why does a dissertation rely on the best scholars doing the most rigorous studies?  Why does a committee of experts in the field get to determine if the dissertation is indeed an addition to scholarship?

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It all boils down to provenance — as with artwork or antiques, if the history of an item shows it to be genuine and valuable, then the provenance is considered good.  Similarly, if an idea is based on a foundation of good scholarship, rigorous research, and unbiased review, you can trust it.  Credible sources with a clear lineage of references can be trusted.  Writers who have put in the requisite time and effort to understand and shape the field can be trusted.  Critical thinkers who can give a cogent answer in defense of their ideas can be trusted.

Scholarship thrives on a good and trustworthy provenance of ideas.

But here’s the sad part: People often don’t care about where some ideas originally come from, especially when finding them on the internet.  Ideas found there tend to be salacious, funny, or outrageous, particularly if it is something that is easily mocked or fun to lampoon.  In fact, the purpose of looking on the internet isn’t to become informed, it’s to upload videos and memes that are entertaining. Don’t worry about the content – it’s better to be outrageous than correct.  Social media is, after all, celebrated more for its visceral reaction than any cerebral reflection.

Blogs, Facebook postings, subreddits are popular more for their kneejerk emotions than for any rational viewpoints.  And scholarship is often the last consideration. Especially among current online Mormon posters.

 

Among members (or purported members) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, use of social media is the best and the worst.  There’s official LDS websites and good ancillary scholarship online.  And then there’s the fault-finders and gossip-mongers and anti-Mormon mockers.  Too often the rational, faith-filled voices are drown out by the complainers, the bandwagon-builders, and the Great and Spacious Building inhabitants.

great-and-spacious-building

Contrast the good academic scholarship necessary for a dissertation with the flashy memes and ideas gone viral on the internet among members (and past members) of the Church.  Rumors abound, offenses are cherished, even whole websites and blogs are marketed for their “you gotta be kidding!” reaction.  And if you post your comments anonymously, your opinion can be just as scurrilous and rude as the next poster.

So where do you turn for the reliable answers, the thoughtful posts, and the scholarly responses?

If you look long enough (sometimes it’s hard to find these among all the clutter of anti-Mormon stuff), you will find fact-checkers like FairMormon.org.  The only problem with their site, as far as I can see, is it is calm, patient, and thorough – no roll-your-eyes response to the ridiculous “scholarship” found in the “Letter to a CES Director” or in Grant Palmer’s “Golden Pot” theory.

There are more aggressive defenders of the faith, like the online Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scriptures publication (www.mormoninterpreter.com).  And although the former FARMS (Now BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, found at mi.byu.edu) used to publish some good apologetics, their recent works continue to be reputable and scholarly.  In addition, BYU Studies (https://byustudies.byu.edu) has peer-reviewed articles (a characteristic of good scholarship).

Of course there’s also good scholarship in the personal blogs of some of the contributing members of the aforementioned groups. For example, if you want scholarly push-back from some of the egregious errors and inflammatory statements made by recent “Mormon experts,” (a questionable soubriquet), I found these postings to be well-researched:

  • My personal favorite is J. Max Wilson’s weblog “Sixteen Small Stones” (https://www.sixteensmallstones.org/) in which he not only comments on past conference talks (a great resource), but calls out the recent agitators against LDS doctrine with good logic and scholarly references.

 

One important caveat—the expertise of religious matters, commendably found in good scholarship and reliable provenance of ideas, must ultimately rely on the Spirit.  President Spencer W. Kimball stated in a BYU Devotional (Fall 1977):

“Expertise in religion comes from personal righteousness and from revelation.”

So in the end, our ideas—from trusted and reliable sources, including personal righteousness and revelation—should be a good antidote against the onslaught of craziness we are seeing on social media.  When I read the inflammatory postings about the Church and its history or doctrines, I continue to ask, what is the provenance of these ideas?  What are you willing to trust?

And if you find yourself caught up in the emotion of the idea, maybe a little fact-checking into an idea’s provenance might not be unwise.

Figuring Out the “Reluctant Mormon” Blogposts

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I’m an educator.  My job is to figure out the best ways to help my students learn.  Occasionally I encountered a real challenge:  that student who put his head down on his desk and refused to read, that student who didn’t want to be in school in the first place, or that student who had a whole arsenal of avoidance strategies.  We called them “reluctant learners” — not because they couldn’t learn (even struggling learners can be taught good coping strategies to learn), but because they would not buy into the culture of the classroom.  Passive-aggressive behaviors, emotional needs not being met, or just some bad habits that made school a miserable experience were some characteristics of the “reluctant learner.”

Similarly, I have encountered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are “reluctant members” — those members who don’t want to continue onward with the community of believers.  They have been offended by people or policies, they may have gotten caught up in the pervasive rhetoric of cynicism towards the church, or they may be suffering from doubts or immobilized by deep-rooted questions.  Whatever the cause, they find the bumps in the road and the construction sites alongside the road as reasons not to continue the journey with the same joy they once had.  Or they choose to discontinue the journey altogether.

My heart hurts for them.  I want to rekindle the love of the journey and help them see the necessity and joy for their membership in the church.  I want to help them relearn their testimony.

We are all on this journey together — whether brand-new baptized member, the burned-out former leader, the enthusiastic missionary, or perhaps the unhappy wanderer. Some of these fellow-travelers can be “reluctant Mormons.”  This series of blogs will address a few of the challenges that I sense can be stumbling blocks or dangerous diverging roads for our fellow-members on the trek.

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Spiritual Quests and the “One True Orchard”

one true orchard blossoms

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.

The-Tree-of-Life1

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.

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(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.

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