So, so you think you can tell . . . .

Evangelicals consistently criticize Mormons for relying too much spiritual experience to tell them the truth of things. This is understandable given how tenacious the belief in the Book of Mormon is amongst the LDS.

In the  previous post Cal commented:  

Kullervo said, “. . . . subjective mystical experiences are not a reliable indicator of objective truth.”

Since we’re straying from the topic, I’ll be as brief as possible. My dictionary defines “subjective” as “of, relating to, or arising within one’s self or mind in contrast to what is outside.”

When I move toward spiritual truth and consequently feel the peace of God come onto me, that’s from outside. It is as real as anything physical. It doesn’t come from any bias I have.

I like Cal’s point,  He is telling us feels the influence of God in the same way that he feels other external phenomena. I think we should be able to accept this in a common-sense way without argument. I personally have experienced such feelings.  I firmly believe that what I call God has had a direct influence on my life, in some way.

The issues that remain are two: verification and interpretation.

Cal’s word alone does not verify that he is experiencing an outside influence, even if we believe he is honest, because he could be fooled. He admits that people are fooled all the time, Mormons in particular.  Mormons believe that Evangelicals are fooled.  Indeed, Christians believe that there is an active unseen force specifically trying to fool everybody all of the time.

More importantly, even if we concede that Cal’s experience is external, it is clear that he is not giving us a narrow, scientific interpretation. He is interpreting the experience within a huge framework of Christian ideas. We know that people that experience the same thing often interpret the experience very differently based on their experiences and mindset, brain chemistry and genetics.

The problem of course, is that for the religious, the interpretations become more important than the experiences.  We are told to listen and learn from what God tells us, so long as it doesn’t tell what is too different from what other, more trustworthy sources tell us.  Mormons allow for leeway in spiritual interpretations son long as they don’t threaten the authority of the church, and Evangelicals allow for leeway so long as it fits neatly within their creeds.  Both sides tell us to both trust and distrust what seems to come from God.

Its hard for me to see which view has any chance of getting a handle on the external spiritual forces that effect human beings all the time. Most atheists seem to have given up on the conundrum, believers seem comfortable with blinders on.

Who is trading heroes for ghosts here?

Ignoring the reality of the supernatural doesn’t seem the answer, but boxing it up in a theology also seems very problematic.  I worry that trying to see all my experiences through some lens will invariably lead to some sort of blindness to what is really going on.  This leads me to an strong distrust of most all theology.  How does your brand of Christianity deal with this problem?

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29 thoughts on “So, so you think you can tell . . . .

  1. In Lutheranism, we try not to get caught up in too many spiritual things…or our feelings of spirituality or closeness to God.

    This is because we know (as St. Paul tells us) that “the devil can come all dressed up as an angel of light.”

    So while those things may be real and true (our feelings, or spiritual things)…we cannot be sure of them and depend on them.

    So we look to the external Word of God’s promises (in the preached Word, in the Bible, and in the Sacraments). These come to us, totally apsrt from what we do, say, feel, or think, and are no dependent or derived from us. So we can count on them ay all times and in all cases.

    Thanks.

  2. My personal brand of Christianity is much less concerned with being objectively “right” than with being good and kind.

    So I handle it by…not handling it. I let it be what it is.

    Faith is ambiguous. There is no conclusive proof for this kind of stuff. That doesn’t make it any less valuable, worthwhile, or true.

  3. “Mormons allow for leeway in spiritual interpretations son long as they don’t threaten the authority of the church, and Evangelicals allow for leeway so long as it fits neatly within their creeds. Both sides tell us to both trust and distrust what seems to come from God”

    An evangelical would say “We allow for leeway so long as it fits neatly with the Bible.”

    And that I think is the crux of verification and interpretation: does my connection with the Spirit align with what God has already said in the Bible (or the broader scripture corpus for Mormons). Because if it does not, then that is how I am sure it does not come from God (tbh, the whole handshake thing always seemed a little silly to me).

    As for me, the simplest test I use is, “Does this further the glory of God by witnessing of the grace of Jesus?”, which I find to be the overarching message of the Bible.

  4. “Ignoring the reality of the supernatural doesn’t seem the answer”

    I think the problem here is that you are going in assuming the reality of the supernatural.

    I don’t ignore it. I look for evidence, of the non-subjective variety.

  5. “Just remember, there is more than one aspect to the supernatural.”

    Such as?

    “And it is more than capable of disguising itself.”

    At some point, there is nothing to differentiate an invisible dragon from no dragon at all.

  6. NotAScientist, the value of belief in the supernatural has almost nothing to do with its ability to be empirically proven.

  7. A fundamental principle of my spirituality is that I am bound and determined not to trade a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage. And let the pieces fall where they may.

    I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser, who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church. On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested, — “But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

    -Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”

  8. “NotAScientist, the value of belief in the supernatural has almost nothing to do with its ability to be empirically proven.”

    If something of value is derived from something that is not true, then the value is extremely questionable. In my humble opinion.

  9. Because if it does not, then that is how I am sure it does not come from God (tbh, the whole handshake thing always seemed a little silly to me).

    Maybe, Andrew, the handshake didn’t mean what you thought it meant.

    Or even if it did (and it’s not my intention to get into all that — major threadjack!), does it matter?

    I have zero investment in convincing you that it’s “true,” but a part of me bristles whenever anyone refers to the sincerely-held beliefs of others as “silly.”

    EVERYONE holds beliefs that could be termed “silly” by an outsider. So what?

  10. “Who is trading heroes for ghosts here?”

    I am, most definitely. The only theology I can accept as a last word on anything is a completely empty and formless one, in which everything is divine and nothing is. Anything less than this ends up making me blind to external contextual realities whose existence my abstract theology inevitably fails to account for (before I encounter them and decide to change the theory or pretend that they do not really exist).

  11. If something of value is derived from something that is not true, then the value is extremely questionable. In my humble opinion.

    That’s fine, NotAScientist. I fully support you in that. Why should you believe in something that has no value for you? (I mean that sincerely, not flippantly.)

    What I’d suggest, though, is that all you’ve done is share more about yourself and the way you approach the world than made any sort of objective statement about the way the world is or should be.

    Certainly you’ve made a subjective statement about the way you believe the world is and should be, and that’s perfectly legitimate. But, for me, the ability for something to be empirically proven couldn’t be less important in terms of the value I derive from it.

    And yes, I fully recognize this is my subjective statement about the way I believe the world is. 🙂

  12. From my Christian Tradition: Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

    I don’t have problems with people citing experience or feelings in thinking about faith, theology, and God. However, I am very wary when people do the following:

    1) Place experience as the ultimate and/or final authority. If faith is going to be about a faith community and about God (both of which are external to the person), then it seems absurd to discount or subordinate them in the process. In the Wesleyan nomenclature, this would be subordinating tradition and scripture to experience.

    2) Over Interpret experience. A classical case of this is when people want move from answered prayers vis-a-vis the Book of Mormon to all kinds of conclusions which don’t follow. People seem to want to associate their good feelings about the Book of Mormon with proof in its historicity, with the LDS church being true, Joseph Smith being a prophet up until his death etc. Let me be clear that good feelings associated with the Book of Mormon are not problematic for me, it’s what people do with them after the fact that causes concern. If there are evangelical equivalents to this, please jump in and relate them.

    3) Insist that experiential leaps of faith are allowed to completely contradict reason. I have no problem with seeing faith as something beyond reason, but I am very wary of leaps of faith which directly contradict reason.

  13. NotAScientist said: I think the problem here is that you are going in assuming the reality of the supernatural.

    I don’t ignore it. I look for evidence, of the non-subjective variety.

    i am not assuming anything. I have experienced things that appear very much outside myself and not naturally explained. (at least very convincingly)

    I think there is all kinds of evidence of the non-subjective variety. The religious experience of human beings has yet to be fully explained. It is very real, and millions (billions?) have experienced it.

    If we do explain it we may stop calling it “supernatural”.
    This goes to the interpretation question. The experiences don’t really prove the existence of a particular kind of God. But the non-supernatural interpretations are not quite adequate either.

  14. Quite honestly, I let the experience interpret itself.
    I am a Mormon, and I agree with Moroni when he said that “every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”

    When I have the “spiritual experience” I consider what that experience is telling me, or persuading me to do. If it persuades to do good it is good, but if not it is not.

    Yes, there is a force out there to deceive, and it is a master at that deception, but it will inevitably contradict itself, and the watchful mind can detect this.
    (See David’s third point).

  15. “I think there is all kinds of evidence of the non-subjective variety. The religious experience of human beings has yet to be fully explained. It is very real, and millions (billions?) have experienced it. ”

    Do you have more than that? Because you said you have ‘all kinds’, and you listed two things. And neither fits the definition of evidence.

    Saying something isn’t yet full explained is a lack of evidence. And a lack of evidence is just that…a lack. It cannot be used as evidence for any hypothesis.

    And saying that millions or billions of people have individual subjective experiences and believe something is not evidence. First of all, a great deal of those experiences and beliefs surrounding them certainly contradict each other. Secondly, this is the fallacy known as the appeal to popularity. It doesn’t matter how many people believe something.

    “But the non-supernatural interpretations are not quite adequate either.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘non-supernatural interpretations’. But the fact that there is no empirical evidence shows that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist. And I find the fact that people feel things and occasionally experience things that aren’t really to be a perfectly adequate explanation for the way the world works.

  16. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘non-supernatural interpretations’. But the fact that there is no empirical evidence shows that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist. And I find the fact that people feel things and occasionally experience things that aren’t really to be a perfectly adequate explanation for the way the world works.

    Very profound indeed. Could you please provide some scientific and empirical evidence that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist?

  17. “Could you please provide some scientific and empirical evidence that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist?”

    That would be the lack of empirical evidence for the supernatural.

    Could you provide evidence that leprechauns are unlikely to exist? And if you can’t, does that mean you have to believe that leprechauns do in fact exist?

    There’s a thing called ‘the burden of proof’. This is a wonderful demonstration of how it works.

  18. Saying something isn’t yet full explained is a lack of evidence. And a lack of evidence is just that…a lack. It cannot be used as evidence for any hypothesis.

    No. there are lots of data about religious/spiritual/paranormal experiences, saying that there is no full explanation doesn’t say anything about a lack of evidence, its points to imperfection in the explanation. There are many phenomena in nature that we simply can’t adequately explain, but for which we have lots of data.
    Interesting example:
    http://www.radiolab.org/2010/apr/05/limits-of-science/

    And saying that millions or billions of people have individual subjective experiences and believe something is not evidence. First of all, a great deal of those experiences and beliefs surrounding them certainly contradict each other. Secondly, this is the fallacy known as the appeal to popularity. It doesn’t matter how many people believe something.

    Again, you are confusing lack of theoretical explanation with lack of evidence. Subjective experiences are absolutely evidence of something. Most human beings can sense color, which we know to be a physical phenomenon. Our understanding of how humans experience color is based, in part, on individual subjective experiences.

  19. Could you provide evidence that leprechauns are unlikely to exist? And if you can’t, does that mean you have to believe that leprechauns do in fact exist?

    There’s a thing called ‘the burden of proof’. This is a wonderful demonstration of how it works.

    If 10,000 other people and I see leprechauns on a regular basis, the burden is on you to explain this adequately if you are going to deny that the phenomena of leprechaun sitings is evidence of something real, yet unexplainable by current science.

  20. “Could you please provide some scientific and empirical evidence that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist?”

    …blah blah blah, hope to avoid the issue, and then…

    There’s a thing called ‘the burden of proof’. This is a wonderful demonstration of how it works.

    So I’ll ask you again, “Could you please provide some scientific and empirical evidence that the supernatural is very unlikely to exist?”

    And let me emphasize, since you are the one making the claim, the burden of proof is on YOU.

  21. “If 10,000 other people and I see leprechauns on a regular basis”

    If this occurs and you still have no evidence but your own say-so, then I have to wonder what chemicals are in the ground water.

  22. NotAScientist, now you are just showing your dismissal of the entire argument prior to examining the evidence, or your disinterest in the subject.

    Lets assume arguendo that lots of people see leprechauns (or feel the Spirit of God, or receive other revelation, etc.)

    You may be able to dismiss or pick apart every current theory or explanation, but until there is a adequate natural explanation, you are at a loss to dismiss any sort of supernatural explanation. The burden is on you to prove that our current concept of nature can explain this adequately.

  23. I like your post, Jared. You really got to the heart of things.

    I believe that until we make Jesus our Lord we are totally blind. Second Corinthians 4:3,4; 3:16 says, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age [Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. . . . But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”

    You said, “I worry that trying to see all my experiences through some lens will invariably lead to some sort of blindness to what is really going on.”

    Legitimate worry.

    Then you said, “This leads me to a strong distrust of most all theology. How does your brand of Christianity deal with this problem?”

    My brand says, “When the differences between denominations & religions oppress, pick up the red hot-line that connects directly to the Father. Pray a lot, study the Bible a lot, and when you hear the Lord telling you to do something, don’t be afraid to do it. The more we do those three things, the more we steal from the devil his license to blind us.”

  24. “Special pleading” is the name for what you’re doing when you say “my spiritual experiences are from God and should be taken at face value; yours are tricks from the Devil that should be treated with suspicion.” You’re claiming that your data is an exception to the general rule that applies to everyone else without sufficiently justifying the exception.

    Unless you are subjecting your own data to the same standard that you are subjecting everyone else’s, your argument is spurious.

    Oh, PS, the standard can’t be spurious either–it has to be subject to the same analysis. So saying “my experience is supported by the Bible” doesn’t get you there unless you can show how the Bible meets your criteria. And “the Bible supports the Bible” is circular.

  25. We played this song in my guitar class last night. It has been one of my very favorite songs since I first heard it years ago.

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