I believe spiritual experience is as unique as any other personal experience. We experience the world through the lens of our minds, our culture, and our past experience. I think it makes sense to think that spiritual experiences will differ dramatically from one person to the other based on these factors. If an omnipotent God exists, whose Spirit flows through all things, it seems that experiencing it would be very similar to the human experience of the sun, i.e. it will appear very similar but would be interpreted very differently based on the environmental factors. The sun in the desert is viewed differently than the sun in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Typical human experience tells us different things about the sun. It may seem a life-giving force to some, or an oppressive burden to others. This analogy helps me understand why we cannot prove things about God through our contact with the Spirit. Before modern physics, the sun was an inscrutable force in the universe, no human experience could explain it properly, but its presence and effects were everywhere. Theology is no match for modern science in its explanatory power because it does not have experimental tools to rule out interpretations. Theologians rely on conventional interpretations of Scripture to guide them in nailing down what is the Truth of the matter, and the rest of experience is viewed through this lens.
Spirituality can also be analogized to color. Current research tells us that color is a private sensation, there is no way of telling that my experience with blue is the same as yours, I may see blue as the color you see as purple. But it turns out that our psychological experiences with color are generally–but not absolutely–similar. We may agree that the sky is blue, but it doesn’t prove that we are seeing blue in the same way, nor does our agreement prove that our private interpretation of blue light is the only way to see the sky.
Likewise, this model shows how a spiritual experience do not entail the truth of any particular interpretation of that experience. But where does that leave those that rely on spiritual experience (their own or others) to live their lives?
In my view the difference between Evangelical Spirituality and Mormon Spirituality can be compared to how people experience the sun in two different buildings, where the building represents a certain theological view. One building has all of its windows facing west, and the other has all of its windows facing east. The confines of the buildings prevent the occupants from seeing the sun in some of its phases, but by the warmth and quality of the light, the occupants can tell that something similar is going on. Those in the east-facing building don’t understand all the talk about the sunset which they experience as only a part of the subtle continuum of twilight, not a spectacular vision. But, of course, the occupants of the west-facing building can talk of nothing but the sunset. They both experience noontime similarly, but only in context of the other significant events.
I think the analogy holds pretty well, especially because the phases of the sun are distinct, even when only subtlety different. When I lived in Finland, summertime brought hours and hours of twilight, which would would merge into to sunrise. The level of light was identical, but you could still tell the difference in quality.
The building analogy also holds pretty well, in order to have structure, the buildings must obstruct some of what is coming in. Theology is the architecture. The windows are used to allow the the phases of the sun that the occupants feel are most important. The windows in one building enhance the sunset by framing it so well, the other building enhances the sunrise. Both groups experience the sun and believe it sacred, but they often don’t quite understand the way the other group talks about it.
Again, it would be great to hear your take on this explanation. These thoughts mainly come out of contemplating how to explain these things to my kids. Do you find these analogies useful?