The effect of words

“When we wish to correct with advantage and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

“Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects.”

(Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 9, 23.)

In the summer after my plebe year at West Point, I went to a house party in Charlelottesville, Virginia. During the festivities one of my buddies let it be known that I could hypnotize people. This was met with a very skeptical response which I, of course, took as a challenge.

There were about twenty upper-middle-class DC-area students, ages 19-20, and a side group of 10, high-and-tight-shaven West Point cadets from all parts.  When I said, “who wants to be hypnotized”, I had all ears. I told them that through hypnosis I could make anyone see or believe anything I told them. They didn’t believe me.

I selected two of several volunteers to show them what’s what. The one I remember most was a girl, she must have been 19, I think her name was Ann.  We sat down at a table and the other college kids gathered around. I walked her through a basic induction that I had learned in high school from my dad’s clinical hypnosis manuals, which he kept in an open dusty box under the stairs.

The induction involved talking to Ann softly, making her aware of her her body by telling her it was becoming heavy, and telling her that I she was uncontrollably falling asleep.  There is a lot that cannot be explained about hypnosis, but it seems you cannot tell someone to go into a trance until they have felt what it is like. After they have experienced trance, they often can go back without hesitation.

In inducing the trance, the sleep analogy seems to work well because people know what sleep is, but they also know that you don’t really want them to go to sleep, so telling them to go to sleep points out whatever mental process they need to put their brain in in order to put their mind to sleep, while leaving the rest of their body awake.  When they are finally in the trance, their mind begins listening to what I say uncritically. I have no memories of being in a hypnotic trance, although people have tried, I am less susceptible to hypnotic induction than most. Some people can’t be induced.

Once Ann was in the trance state, I told her that I was going to snap her out of the trance, but that she would go back immediately when I told her to.   I told her that after she awoke, everything I told her to see, she would actually see,  precisely as if it was real.  I snapped my fingers.

First, I told her I was giving her a plate of cake. She acted like she was eating cake and described how it tasted.  I told her I was giving her a pack of cards to deal, she took the imaginary deck and dealt to the people around the table, naming the non-existent cards as she turned them over. I introduced her to “George” who I told her was sitting in the empty seat next to me. She shook his hand and described him to the group.  I told her to go back to sleep.  She returned to the trance.

I had told Ann that she would not remember any of the things that she saw when I snapped her out of the trance.  I had her wake up and had the audience of party-goers tell her about what she had just seen and done. She adamantly denied everything, which brought on laughter and amazement from the group. I had her return to the trance and then I told her that when she awoke she would remember seeing the things that I had told her to see, but she would recognize that they were not real.

The reason I remember this Ann’s induction was that, after she awoke — although she recognized that the things I told her to see were not real — she refused to believe that I did not have a friend named George.  She was certain that she had met this person and she thought I was putting her on by telling her he was not real. This made her the butt of jokes for the rest of the night,  when people would say “Hey George” and she would peek around the corner to try to catch the kid that she believed she had shaken hands with.

I have thought quite a bit about that experience, and what was going on in that girl’s head.  We know that the vision of man that she saw was entirely formed in her mind, from her own imagination, yet it appeared to her as if the image was coming to her brain from outside of her.  I also found out that I could invoke believable visual and auditory hallucinations in a completely sober, sane person simply by talking to them in a certain way.

The experience left a deep impression on me.  It affirmed the fact that the mind’s eye is a tricky thing, and that even though it might be reasonable to believe everything you think you see, it not so easy to whether you were actually quite delusional. I realized that it is almost impossible to stop fooling ourselves.

In many ways this was the most important thing I have ever learned about the human mind and religion. That evening, I came to understand Mormonism more clearly than I ever had before.  It was a crucial insight that made me a very successful missionary. It also brought about a certain radical skepticism of all idealism.  I recognized that idealism, like hypnotic induction, could control the mind, make it see visions that were not there, and lead it “carefully down to hell” or inspire it to heaven, or occasionally, both at the same time.  It was difficult to see any religious language or art as anything more than a particular method of saying “This is God!” I saw Mormonism as a religion that left a man free to trust his own vision in life and God, and to invoke that in others through the power of his peculiar testimony.

I believe if Mormons and other Christians fully come to terms with the facts about the human species that allowed Ann to conjure up the vision of George — the same facts that allow us to conjure up the image of whatever god we choose — it may be possible to more fully unify Christianity and even bring many hardened atheists to Christ.


33 thoughts on “The effect of words

  1. You may be right, Jared.
    Here’s the kind of hypnotism I want:

    by John Paul Jackson

    I meet a lot of young prophetic people in different places around the world. They are gifted men and women who can discern God’s voice, and I often hear them say similar things:

    “If the church would just do this . . .”

    “If the pastor would just do that . . .”

    “If my father would just do this . . .”

    “If my boss would just do that . . .”

    They see the issues more than they see what is going well.

    As prophetic people, we have a wonderful gift, but when we “tune” it to finding other people’s mistakes, we can become sin hunters who sometimes end up missing what God wants to do.

    Prophecy is not meant to tear people down. It is meant to build people up. It is a constructive element of the Kingdom, not a destructive element.

    Many of us are uncommonly good at perceiving other people’s sin, and if we’re not careful, we get pulled into a cycle of negativity, where the negative is somehow more interesting to us than the positive.

    The problem is that we become what we think! We become what we take in and what we see. And when our lives are focused on the negative, we lose our peace and don’t understand why we no longer receive as much revelation as we used to.

    The peace of God is our phone line, if you will. Without peace, we don’t hear His voice. Without peace, it is difficult to see Him at work in people’s lives. The measure of peace we have in our lives reveals our understanding of the bigness of God.

    Revelation comes from peace. If we want to hear God more and in greater, deeper ways, we need to learn how to walk in His peace and break the cycle of prophetic drama in our lives. We are prophetic—being aware of sin comes with the territory. But what we choose to do with that revelation will either help build the Kingdom or help tear it down. It’s up to us.

  2. Fun post. I will note a couple things on this topic,.

    So, my dad is a hypnotist. I don’t know all the ramifications of this, but I know he does some sort of side business for this. I have done a lot of reading into hypnosis personally. I think it’s very neat — but I also am not very inducive to hypnosis. One thing that struck me was that a good measure of how hypnotizable is not whether someone thinks they can or cannot be hypnotized (there are ways of inducing people who don’t “think” they are hypnotizable, but who actually are) but rather how absorbed they can get in certain tasks, and how active their mind’s eye is.

    My mind’s eye is very very poor. For the longest time, I really really really disliked reading (like, novels, things like that) because I couldn’t see the action or the characters and it would be difficult to keep up. I don’t really see the characters or actions now, but I kinda attach impressions from video games or movies I’ve played (not the visuals, but the “impressions”). It’s tough for me to get absorbed in a book where the description has to be imagined rather than seen or experienced more directly. So, I can see conceptually how the two things (hypnotizability, mind’s eye, etc.,) are connected.

    To me, it doesn’t matter that George isn’t real, that George was conjured up through hypnotic suggestion. What matters is Ann’s phenomenological experience of George. So, you came away skeptical of idealism…but as for me, hmm, I think that idealism is, in some ways, more practical. Like, Ann was so convinced of George (even though you know you made it up). Whether George was fake or not fake was utterly not as important as her experience thereof.

  3. with Andrew –

    I’m very interested in the effects of religion on people and society outside of truth claims. For example, science can tell us that people engaged in belief/religion are generally “happier”, live longer, give more to support the poor etc. This doesn’t have to mean that everyone is better of as a believer, it doesn’t have to say anything about the truth of religion. These findings could be true and God could not exist, at the same time. In my view at least.

    I have a disposition that seems to resist belief or faith. But I keep running back to it, not because it always works out without struggle and grief, but because counter cultural teachings of Jesus lift me to a higher place. It helps me to be at peace with the confusing and often painful world around me. That has become something that I desperately want to follow, even it turn out not to be true in a literal? way.

  4. With regard to our happiness, this phenomena also plays out forcefully in the image we have of ourselves. We are very committed to our own self image, regardless of how others characterize us from a more objective vantage point. Christian joy is very much a part of giving up certain images (visions) of ourselves that hold us down at least to the extent that we think they are the only true vision.

  5. And to anticipate a question:

    I think its possible that there is a one true God, but I also think that
    the science tells us that a wide variety of religious traditions have
    a positive effect on societies and people around the world. So, like any
    good Mormon, I think the light of Christ can be found in many different
    forms and places.

  6. Here a great quote that touches on this subject:

    “In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders of inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first separately, and then adding them together.

    In the matter of religions it is particularly easy to distinguish the two orders of question. Every religious phenomenon has its history and its derivation from natural antecedents. What is nowadays called the higher criticism of the Bible is only a study of the Bible from this existential point of view, neglected too much by the earlier church. Under just what biographic conditions did the sacred writers bring forth their various contributions to the holy volume? And what had they exactly in their several individual minds, when they delivered their utterances? These are manifestly questions of historical fact, and one does not see how the answer to them can decide offhand the still further question: of what use should such a volume, with its manner of coming into existence so defined, be to us as a guide to life and a revelation?

    To answer this other question we must have already in our mind some sort of a general theory as to what the peculiarities in a thing should be which give it value for purposes of revelation; and this theory itself would be what I just called a spiritual judgment. Combining it with our existential judgment, we might indeed deduce another spiritual judgment as to the Bible’s worth. Thus if our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it, must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict would be much more favorable. You see that the existential facts by themselves are insufficient for determining the value; and the best adepts of the higher criticism accordingly never confound the existential with the spiritual problem. With the same conclusions of fact before them, some take one view, and some another, of the Bible’s value as a revelation, according as their spiritual judgment as to the foundation of values differs.

    I make these general remarks about the two sorts of judgment, because there are many religious persons—some of you now present, possibly, are among them—who do not yet make a working use of the distinction, and who may therefore feel at first a little startled at the purely existential point of view from which in the following lectures the phenomena of religious experience must be considered. When I handle them biologically and psychologically as if they were mere curious facts of individual history, some of you may think it a degradation of so sublime a subject, and may even suspect me, until my purpose gets more fully expressed, of deliberately seeking to discredit the religious side of life.

    Such a result is of course absolutely alien to my intention . . . “

  7. I may be oversimplifying, but I doubt all this will give pause to many Evangelical Christians. The usual criticism of the Mormon reliance on revelation, is often followed with an affirmation of the
    authority and reliability of the Bible. “And how do you know the Bible is true and inerrant?” I ask. “Because it IS.” they respond, without hesitation.

  8. Well, inerrancy is a doctrine that tries to keep people focused on a particular fact, I think the it is reasonable to think that the Bible is inerrant with regard to the fact of Christ. But this does not require that the Bible be “literally” true in most any sense.

    The fact of Christ is simple, most of theology is simply used to allow us to retrieve the simple mental image of complete redemption, Mormons use ritual and practice to get people to see their own salvation instead of theology. This isn’t a wrong path, it is just not as sure-fire as certain orthodox theology. Mormons would do well to incorporate this part of the Light of Christ that other churches have into their teaching. Simply changing their music might be a good step to reform.

  9. So, like any good Mormon, I think the light of Christ can be found in many different
    forms and places.

    I think this is an important insight to keep in mind. Mormonism is modeled after America, a single monoculture layed over a large variety of subcultures. Mormonism forces people to consider the monoculture the most important, i.e. that this is the culture of the Most High, i.e. the Kingdom of God.

    What Mormons don’t get, usually, is that the Light of Christ is also synonymous with God, and is necessarily outside of their cultural constraints, this is why it is in all cultures. Mormons will sometimes err by focusing more on the God of their culture rather than the God of the Universe. The fact of Christ does not bring the psychological benefit of joy when you don’t recognize that the Light of Christ penetrates, with a proverbial sword, every cultural norm. The Light of Christ operates outside of culture. The fact of Christ — i.e. the fact of our salvation from even the culture of the Most High God — works to bring peace from any cultural misconduct, even misconduct against God’s culture.

    Christ is not the power that allows us to live perfectly within the perfect culture, it is the fact that we are free from these concerns in Christ. Whatever life we live we will have artistic license to create something beautiful or good, but we can’t expect all of our works to be golden, ultimately we become is up to God, not us. Our lives may be ugly when we compare them to the Light of Christ within us, but in Christ we will see how this ugliness can turn to beauty.

    That our sins are forgiven in Christ is a fact that can be dramatic when our mind’s eye first grasps it. The New Testament is true because its teaching leads people to grasp this side of the Light of Christ. The Mormons, who have generally been focused on perfecting culture, should start using clear theology (sort of like tested, tried-and-true ideological inductions) that acknowledges that the immediate presence of Christ is available now — not merely comfort that somebody really loves us enough to die for us. At the very least, they should fully embrace the use of orthodox theology among members.

    According to LDS scripture, the presence of Christ is *literally* the only path to the terrestrial-kingdom-on-earth that Mormons claim they are creating through covenants with God and the Church.

  10. The Bible is true and infallible …but it is not inerrant. Doesn’t need to be without error. It is fully a product of God…and of man.

    The finite contains the infinite. Just as it was with our dear Lord Jesus himself.

  11. Two quick thoughts on inerrancy. First inerrancy is not biblical literalism. Second, inerrancy is a tenant of faith. We have reason to believe that the Bible is reliable but can’t give slam dunk proof that it is the Word of God. We have faith in it as such.

  12. The word inerrancy means, ‘without error’.

    The was fully a part of the historical process (fallible man was involved)…but yet it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    Infallible, I believe, is a much better word for the Bible.

  13. “Well, inerrancy is a doctrine that tries to keep people focused on a particular fact, I think the it is reasonable to think that the Bible is inerrant with regard to the fact of Christ.”

    I see the motivation behind traditional Protestant/Evangelical views of the Bible. I see the logic. What I don’t understand is how relying on any elevated text is any less susceptible to the self deceit and error you seem to be illustrating in your OP.

  14. cowboy, There is a prevailing tendency across all religious traditions or ideologues to accept historical evidence that confirms what they already believe and explain away historical evidence that runs counter to what they believe. Protestants (and Mormons) are no strangers to this tendency.

  15. Regarding relying on elevated text:

    Generally, when we elevate text, we do it for good reasons. Shakespeare is elevated because he was an unbelievable genius at understanding the modern soul. The Old Testament is an elevated text because it shows that there is one God not many. The New Testament is an elevated text because it points to a Christ. No details of the history of Jesus have to be exactly true in order to point to a Christ.

    The difference between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity is not their God (that is the same) it is that Islam doesn’t believe in a Christ, the Jews believe in a Christ but don’t believe he has come, and the Christians believe in a Christ and believe he has arrived. The reason the New Testament is inerrant is that it directly points at what a Christ is, and then points at Jesus as Christ.

    Whether or not Jesus is the Christ is actually a secondary question as to whether there is a Christ. If you can accept that there is a Christ, most people realize that this is what Jesus was talking about. Paul simply said that there was no further sacrifice necessary because Christ had arrived. If Jesus is Christ, he absolutely did not get that wrong no matter how historically inaccurate the Gospels may be.

  16. I don’t believe a text has to be historical at all to be “true” in principle. I’m not hung up on that. I’m arguing that the Bible can only be a starting point for belief, that we have to spiritually test the words of Paul and whomever wrote the rest of the Bible, to come to any sort of conviction, belief, faith. Your post seems to be telling me that this spiritual testing is bound to deceive us. Which is why I am a believer, but claim to know very little.

  17. Andrew,

    Very interesting regarding your dad and hypnosis.

    I think there must be a connection between our ability to visualize abstract things, hypnotic suggestibility, and transcendental meditation.

    This was always a part of how we were taught religion at home. My dad is a psychologist who did his PhD dissertation on the measurable similarity between transcendental meditation and hypnotic trance. I think the various levels of ability to enter these mental states must say a lot about how we are able to perceive abstract facts of reality.

  18. Christian, in talking about the reliability of the Bible, I think its historical accuracy is a fair discussion. As to the accuracy proving anything regarding faith, no, not in the slightest as that comes down to faith. But a serious question: if a religious text were full of historical lies why would we believe anything it has to say about spirituality, if the text is concerned in any way with truth?

  19. slow, Objective scholarship has basically proven that much of the Bible is not historically verifiable and in many cases contradicts. The NT writers also used the OT in a way that is, objectively, as close to proof-texting as you can get. I’m actually fine with that and think there is truth in principle, if not all historically true – *Because (and this is important) that is how ancient writers understood the task of history.* Kugel says it a lot better. And he was no atheist.

  20. It still is the task of history. How we see history matters. History is not usually the facts, it is mainly their interpretation. The details rarely matter except in how they fit the interpretation.

  21. Christian, sorry, not going to read an entire book now. But do you have anything to suggest that more and more of what they find confirms what is written in the Bible? Seriously, if you have something, produce it.

    Its clear there are things in the Bible that can’t be confirmed, but that is not my contention. My contention is that more and more the Bible is proving an accurate portrayal of historic events and peoples.

  22. listen man, I’m just sincerely asking what it is you’re saying. I realize there are loads of archeological finds that give evidence for the existence of Biblical references like a historical Jesus or David or The Siloam Pool or the Nag Hammadi library which does a great job of verifying the diversity of the early Christian movement. I just don’t know which find prove what about the theological claims found in the Bible. Again, you seem to be saying that archeology proves something as the reliability of the Bible in regards to Godly truth. I just don’t know how you’re doing that.

    As I said before, I also continue to be baffled by the sidestepping of archeology that challenges traditional Christian/Orthodox Jewish views of the Bible.

    Let me just conclude finally, with a reminder: I consider the Bible a source of truth, irregardless of these findings. Are the Parables of Jesus historical? Are they true in principle? For me, its a no and a YES. That’s how I see the Bible.

  23. Christian, I asked above and got no answer: why would I believe an historical/theological book that is supposed to tell us truth but could not be relied upon in its historical terms?

    You continue to miss the issue. You seem to WANT to sidestep the issue of the historical accuracy. Now, to an extent, I understand why. Historical accuracy says nothing of theological accuracy. I make no secret that it does. However, just the same, I have not made the argument that historical accuracy = theological accuracy. Reread my posts on this. Never do I suggest that is true.

    What I do, however, is raise questions of why we should trust a book, if it supposed to be historical, that cannot be trusted historically. I believe the Bible can be trusted historically, and therefore is mere more trustworthy as to its theological claims.

    Bear in mind that the Bible is considered the inspired word of God, literally breathed by God through the pen of man. If it were not historically acceptable, then why would we believe a God who could not even get the history right?

    Nonetheless, you are right to suggest that accurate history does not equal accurate theology. Even still, I’d rather believe a book that has some historical accuracy. You?

  24. Christian, I asked above and got no answer: why would I believe an historical/theological book that is supposed to tell us truth but could not be relied upon in its historical terms?

    I think it is unreasonable to expect the bible to be historically accurate as far as the specific events. I understand wanting the Bible to be historically accurate, but I would say that most of the details are accidental to the message/proclamation of the Bible. Thus, most are not critical to the meaning. e.g. it makes no difference if there was an actual Job.

    I think it is pretty clear that many of the events are not documentary of the actual events, but documentary of the meaning of the events.

  25. If it were not historically acceptable, then why would we believe a God who could not even get the history right?

    Because the meaning of the bible is independent of the literal truth of the sentences in the Bible. Some historical details do matter, most are collateral.

  26. Jared, actually, many of the books in the Bible are histories, recording the story of the Israelites. That is their primary purpose.

    Does it matter if there were a Job? Let me ask you this, instead: is the story of Job more powerful if there actually were a Job? I think so, and I don’t know of any reason to think there never was a Job. What makes you doubt that there may have been Job?

  27. I just watched the video. Seems a fancy way of saying words are contextual. However, this begs the question of whether or not words have ultimate utility and if so, what is that utility.

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