The facts of language and spiritual experience.

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Wittgenstein’s philosophy confirmed a simple fact that was pretty clear when I was a child, but became cloudier over the course of my education: i.e. the meaning of the words I use is not a matter of my private experience, even if all of my experience is private.

In fact, it is often impossible for me to adequately explain the meaning of many of the words I use, even though I somehow know what they point at, and how to use them.

It seems to me that human language is the same kind of fact as the whistling of beavers building their dams and living their lives. The whistles come to them through their senses, hit their brains, and then – they behave like beavers and build dams. What is the meaning of a particular whistle?  It creates a particular attitude in a beaver.  What are the meaning of words? The attitude that is invoked in the hearer. The whistling is a fact other than the beaver because the whistles change the facts of the world as other beavers react to the  influence of the whistling beaver’s attitude.

There is no way to establish scientifically – i.e. in words that we can understand as a reliable explanation – what a whistle means to a beaver brain other than the beaver behavior.  And this is the case whether or not we think the beaver has any choice in the matter.

What does this simple fact point to?  that the words we say matter, but that they don’t explain anything let alone prove anything, they don’t establish any facts other than the lives of the beavers and the effects of their cutting and damming

Science can be reasonably seen as highly refined beaver whistling. It allows you to signal incredibly complex information in code, but the code doesn’t explain any of the facts, it just points them out for your benefit. Science only investigates what we beavers are interested in, leaving all other facts undiscovered.

The simple fact is that the whistling of Joseph Smith changes the facts for many people and the whistling of St. Paul also changes the facts for many people, the whistling of Martin Luther as well.  Whatever spiritual experience these men had, it is essentially irrelevant, we have only their whistling about it.

What is also clear is that many tunes cannot be played at the same time without cacophony.  The requirement of orthodoxy is simply a requirement of harmony.  The requirement of harmony does not diminish the actual effect of each whistling style, it is just a natural requirement — call it logic — that these styles confuse when they occur side-by-side.

Whether it’s the whistling of beavers, the writing of prophets, or the theories of scientists, no matter what vision caused them to let out the sounds they do, only one fact matters: the effect of the sounds on the hearer. What determines that effect? the interaction between whatever language is and whatever a person is.

What bearing does this have on religious experience? No matter how great your vision is, no matter what you saw or whether that somehow corresponds to most other people’s vision (scientific vision) it is still just the whistling of beavers, it doesn’t explain the world or the fact of God, but it still may change facts in the world.  That seems to be the only way I have of judging it.

Mormons say that Joseph Smith’s visions should be applied to life, as well as all the visions contained in scripture, and even many of your own sincere visions.  As I understand the discussion, the Evangelical is telling the Mormon that you can say whatever you like, but you have to be very clear and explicit about how you articulate one particular man’s vision because otherwise the hearer will not be directed to the simple fact of salvation.  In fact, they advocate ignoring the parts of any of the other visions if it distracts the mind from this simple fact.

The question remains, what are the words of eternal life and how are they distinguished?

5 thoughts on “The facts of language and spiritual experience.

  1. The words of eternal life are these words, “Your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.”

    Whenever they are spoken to someone and faith is created (gifted)…then that person has what the words promise.

  2. I would argue that Christians do tell Mormons to be careful in how they use words. For example, even the name Jesus conjures different meanings and ramifications, so when Mormons and Christians proclaim a belief in Christ, the Christ in question is not the same.

    The Word is eternal life. John 1 comes to mind here, where we see God as the Word, and the Word then became flesh. How then do we distinguish? Well, I would be lying to suggest there is not a strong element of faith here, because faith is paramount. But its much more than that. Its the consistency of the Biblical text; the continuity of the world around us; the historical record; and on we go.

    However, no matter what I or anyone else may tell you, while God is speaking to you, only you can respond to Him. Its not always an easy process, but its one we each must bear.

  3. I would argue that Christians do tell Mormons to be careful in how they use words.

    Arguably, this is the most important thing they are telling them.

  4. I agree. Christians view it as manipulation and obfuscation. I doubt it is intentional, but rather a result of a lack of understanding Christian doctrine. All too often, there is a sense that Christians and Mormons talk past each other due to the similar but distinctly different meanings of various terms.

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