I have been thinking an awful lot lately about Mormonism, how to explain it, what it is in the grand scheme of things. I think the most difficult questions surround what the LDS call the Spirit. Nothing is ostensibly more important to Mormons than the Spirit. Feeling the Spirit is the central experience of Mormonism. It is enshrined as THE only legitimate tool for conversion, it held up as the guide for every decision in life, and is considered the driving force behind the Church and its mission.
When I was an LDS missionary in California, I participated in the conversion of about two dozen people. Some of these conversions had an absolutely magical quality to them. I saw dramatic personality transformations. Over and over again, I felt an overwhelming emotional and spiritual response from those I was teaching. It was like falling in love– an experience equally filled with magic. It seemed that those I was teaching, my companions, and others involved felt something very real and very similar. The Spirit would seem to fill the room like a thick mist. It was gripping and energizing. The peculiarity and reality of the experiences were unmistakable. These feelings convinced me of an unseen world and they were the bedrock of my belief in the Church and in Christianity.
Like the converts I taught, most Mormons I know will generally point to experiences with the Spirit as the key reason they are committed believers in the Church.
Perhaps, when the Spirit is taken seriously, it removes doubt by killing the questions. Conceptual and historical inconsistencies can be quite easily smoothed over in the face of a powerful physical/emotional/intellectual experiences. What is hazy and conceptual gives way to the concrete. It can be very disruptive, profound experiences with the Spirit cleared the way for Mormons to reject the most sacred of social and religious traditions. When you feel something unseen, powerful, and un-explainable, that can be pretty consistently invoked by attending church, prayer, or reading scripture, it’s much easier to accept historical or scientific absurdities or to reject established traditions that have far less impact on life.
The phenomenon of the Spirit presents challenges to both believers in religion and atheists alike. What is happening when people have such experiences. Are they the same in nature as the experiences of other Christians, how are they different, what is the cause of the difference. What I have yet to see is a satisfying explanation of the Spirit from a non-Mormon or Mormon source that encompasses the experiences of those inside and outside Mormonism. Maybe there is not enough of a conceptual framework to adequately talk about these issues. But, regardless, I think coming to terms with these phenomena is critical to explaining Mormonism, religion, and the diversity of religious experience. I think that is, perhaps, the most important barrier between Mormons and other Christians, but I rarely see any analysis from either side that explains the similarities and differences in core Spiritual experiences.
So. . . if anybody has thoughts on this, I would appreciate them.