In comments on an earlier post I had argued that everyone comes to faith in a religious belief system through either experience, authority or reason (ideally all three would play a role).
BrianJ asked me to clarify with these questions:
Suppose I find that following the principles found in the New Testament makes me happier, time and time again. That’s an experience argument, I know. But at what point can I start to view the NT as an “authority on happy choices” by your definition? Or, if I apply the “by their fruits ye shall know them” test, at what point does it become sound reasoning to consider the NT as a thoroughly vetted source?
Actually, that’s probably jumping ahead too much. Just help me understand this: How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?
To clarify and expand my earlier thoughts. It would be very rare for someone to come to faith based on authority, reason and experience all at the same time. But as faith matures and the believer is discipled into their worldview I believe you will see people incorporate all three into their belief systems. As a cord of three strands is not easily broken, the reliability of authority, reason and experience will support one another if any of the three is attacked. In fact, to convert anyone from one faith system to another the concerns of authority, reason and experience more often than not must all be addressed.
To make a specific example, many Catholics are persuaded to believe and behave a certain way because of the authority they believe the Vatican, and their local priest hold. An individual may learn to respect that authority from the authority of their parents or their larger culture. Allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and further allegations of cover up by bishops and cardinals should to some degree threaten that authority. But despite these troublesome reports, many Catholics remain faithful, some despite being directly abused. The reasons they may remain faithful have to do with their positive spiritual experiences in mass or while practicing spiritual disciplines as well as their exposure to deep thinking Catholic writings and philosophy (starting with their catechism). The attack on Catholic authority will only threaten faith in the Catholic church if it overwhelms a Catholic’s positive experience with Catholic experience and Catholic reason.
There may be any number of people who are part of a belief system because of only one of the three (authority, reason, experience). But those people are probably most at risk for a loss in faith. The person who only relies on reason will find their spiritual life stale. The person who only relies on experience will find their faith easily attacked by outside questions and may not weather through persecution or dark nights of the soul. The person who only relies on authority will only follow that authority so long as it doesn’t conflict with their outside experiences with reason or emotional/spiritual well-being.
If you’re clever enough, you can recognize that every anti-Mormon argument is an attack at authority, reason or experience. Similarly, every encouragement toward baptism by Mormon missionaries is an appeal to authority, reason or experience.
Brian asked me “How do you determine what you will view as “authority”?” I have placed authority in primarily two places in my spiritual life. The first is the leadership of my local church. I give them authority in my religious life simply because I choose to. I recognize the need for structure and leadership in a congregation. I also appreciated what was happening in my church before I started attending and what continues to take place there. Their wisdom holds good fruit. Earlier in my life I may have also granted them authority based on their greater education and experience. Their authority in my life is a weaker authority because I believe other congregations hold the same qualities and can easily replace the Elders in my church (as compared to the Mormon and Catholic belief in only one priesthood).
The second place I trust as an authority is the Bible. I learned to trust the Bible as an authority initially from my parents and from my surrounding culture in Oklahoma. As the song goes, “for the Bible tells me so” was enough motivation to believe or behave in any particular way. Pointing to a Bible verse was enough to convince me. This was considered culturally appropriate and also the way my family did things. In time I learned reasons to believe the Bible was historically reliable and I had positive and powerful experiences following its teachings that convinced me to continue trusting the Bible. I’ve also added my trust in the traditions of my Christian ancestors (another source of authority) as a reason to trust and rely on the Bible.
As you can see, from just this one example, authority, reason and experience have found a way to intertwine themselves around one another in my religious life and it doesn’t stop there. When I have a spiritual experience (see a miracle, hear voices, feel unwittingly deeply emotional) I test those experiences against what my sources of authority and reason say (as well as what my past spiritual experiences were like). If I encounter troubling historical or philosophical arguments against Christianity, I consult or rely on my sources of authority and my past experiences until I can overcome or resolve those issues (in addition to the reasons I already believe Christianity to be true).
In that earlier post I antagonized spiritual experiences as being sufficient or useful in evaluating all religious claims. It’s not a problem for Mormonism to point to reason and authority as a motivation to believe (in addition to spiritual experience). This is exactly how faith in all religious belief is formed. In fact Mormonism already quite frequently directs investigators and believers to authority and reason. When anyone says “when the Prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” they are making an authority claim. When Mormon missionaries point investigators to Moroni’s Promise, they are holding the Book of Mormon up as a source of trusted authority. When Mormons visit Missouri to catch a glimpse of what was once Adam-ondi-Ahman or go on Book of Mormon tours of Central America, they are adding a source of historical reason to their faith. When Elder Holland called on believers and critics alike to consider Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s use of the Book of Mormon for spiritual comfort as they faced martyrdom as well as the evidence of chiasmus he was pointing toward reason.
Neither authority, nor reason, nor experience sit alone in developing faith. Spiritual fruit is not limited to experience, we can also find good and bad fruit in authority and good and bad fruit in reason. When any of the three are neglected or eschewed we are likely to find the kind of poor soil that Jesus said would not produce any fruit.