Notes on the possibility of a profitable dialogue between Mormons and Protestants

This is a response to Gundek’s suggestions regarding the way forward in my project to create a profitable LDS/Evangelical dialogue. ¬†(Again, I didn’t edit this much and it might be a bit too repetitive, so please read charitably. ūüôā )

Like I have said earlier, I really don’t know much about being a converted Protestant, but I know that I now see something now that I didn’t see as a believing, spiritually minded¬†Latter-day Saint. ¬†I am starting with the Light of Christ because the LDS will have no problem acknowledging that whatever truth I did find, it was not from an¬†experience with the Holy Ghost, or from the Gift of the Holy Ghost. ¬†This is important because I am not LDS anymore and I want to be clear that whatever think about salvation does not threaten the LDS tradition because it comes outside of LDS covenants and outside of the Gift of the Holy Ghost. ¬†Mormonism is, by definition, the religion that is revealed outside of the understanding available through the Light of Christ, i.e. the Spirit of God, that those outside the Church have access to.

The Light of Christ seems a great place to start my dialogue with the LDS tradition because within the LDS tradition, whatever light and knowledge I have found must have come through the Light of Christ.  By couching my understanding in terms of the Light of Christ, it side-steps all LDS revelation and tradition, and tries to go to the root of what non-LDS see in God that Joseph Smith may have taken for granted, or simply failed to grasp.  It is no knock on Joseph Smith to claim that he did not understand the full nature of the Light of Christ, because the Light of Christ encompasses all knowledge.

In some ways I am trying to reverse-engineer my conversion process, restating the ideas that pushed me over the edge. The problem with this approach is that¬†¬†that once I began to recognize the reality of law and the reality of grace, and then feel the joy that this recognition brought, all kinds of ideas started clicking together to the point that I didn’t know precisely what convinced me, and how to explain why the argument was inescapable.

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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, ‚Äú. . . . subjective mystical experiences are not a reliable indicator of objective truth.‚ÄĚ

Since we‚Äôre straying from the topic, I‚Äôll be as brief as possible. My dictionary defines ‚Äúsubjective‚ÄĚ as ‚Äúof, relating to, or arising within one‚Äôs self or mind in contrast to what is outside.‚ÄĚ

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?

What is your most compelling reason for believing in God?

Here is a question that may shed some light and understanding on the common ground between Evangelicals and Mormons:

Why (the heck) do you believe in God anyway?

There are all kinds of reasons not to believe in God, all kinds of proofs for his existence, but I doubt these make a lot of difference in the bedrock reasons for belief in a personal God.  So, for those willing to share, if you do believe that a personal God exists, what is the most compelling reason for you. Is it a historical account, a personal experience, a series of personal experiences?

For me, although there are other reasons, it comes down to a series of personal experiences ¬†(quite a few) that I can’t explain effectively without refering to God. ¬†I know this comes across as pretty weak, but my skeptical nature has stripped bare my interpretations of these experiences to the point to where that is the best description of what anchors my faith.

In recent years I have mentally revisited many of my experiences and tried to be more discerning about what they really mean.  My attitude is partly shaped by the thoughts of the  philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most compelling and entertaining anti-christ writers, who criticised the way people view religious experiences:

”¬†As interpreters of our experiences- One sort of honesty has been alien to all founders of religions and their kind: They ahve never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? ¬†What happened in me and around me at the that time? Was my reason bright enough? Was my will opposed to all deceptions of the senses and bold in resisting the fantastic?” None of them has asked such questions, nor do any of our dear religious people ask them even now. ¬†On the contrary, they thirst after things that¬†go against reason, and they do not wish to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it. So they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear the voices of little angels! But we, we others who thirst after reason, are determined to scrutinize our experiences as severely as a scientific experiment– hour after hour, day after day. ¬†We ourselves wish to be our experiments and guinea pigs.” — (The Gay Science #319 trans. by Walter Kaufmann, 1974, Random House. )

I have tried to take guidance from this advice, because I think it is important for me to feel comfortable that I am not deceiving myself, because ultimately I have to be able to trust myself in order to trust my experiences. ¬†One of these experiences that confirms my belief in God occurred about 4 months ago. ¬†I went to temple square in Salt Lake City and walked through the tour posing as a non-mormon. It was me, a couple from Britain and a guy from Brooklyn. ¬†The sisters that lead us through the tour, although pretty, did not have much game when it came to explaining the church to the savvy, skeptical non-believer. ¬† ¬†The tour lasted about 20 minutes and ended at the Assembly Hall a pretty church that sits next to the Tabernacle. ¬† I sat down on an pew and told the sisters I wanted to ask them a question, why did they believe in God. ¬† They gave me the standard, true believer answers, i.e. that everything tells them that there is a God, that they get answers to their prayers all the time (e.g. one sister prayed in the morning when she lost her keys, and they turned up, etc). ¬† I could tell they were sincere believers, not brainwashed, but not skeptical of the experiences they had either, therefore I found much of what they were saying un-helpful. All of this was very sincere, and I don’t find any fault with what they said or how they said it, but I was essentially disappointed, this was the same stuff rehashed and wasn’t at all compelling. ¬†Then one sister turned to me, and said that if I would pray in my room that night, and ask God to show himself that I would get an answer. ¬† Of course this is exactly what I had expected, but I did not expect the internal response I had. ¬†Almost the instant the words came out of her mount, it was all I could do just to hold it together, tears were streaming down my cheeks. ¬†I was not sure if I was surprised or not but tried to remain as “objective” as possible about what was happening, and I don’t want to jump to many conclusions about the ultimate meaning and interpretation of the experience. ¬†But suffice it to say this came at a time where I was at my most skeptical of the existence of God, the Church, Christianity, etc.

The sisters were remarkably cool about how they reacted, they stood there until I pulled it together, I apologized for my tears and they said goodbye, didn’t push anything or put any spin on what they clearly saw happen to me.

Now I am not about to put too much of a spin on this experience either, I don’t know that it should “prove” anything to you at all, after all you were not in a position to observe myself as I was, you were not in a position to be the scientist to make sure that there were not non-God influences that brought about such a strong reaction in me. ¬† Certainly you cotuld chalk up my reaction to so many similar childhood experiences, or even ¬†conditioned response. ¬†But as the observer who knew my history best, and can see the similarities and differences in this context compared to other near identical experiences where I did not have such a reaction, my conclusion is that something outside of me triggered this reaction. ¬†Given the vagueness of the way I felt, ¬†I can’t say that this experience was proof of the truth of the Mormon Church, or Christianity, or anything particularly detailed, but I can say that on that Sunday afternoon, I felt that God existed and was making me feel it in the presence of those two kids with nametags, representing the LDS Church and It didn’t seem to have much to do with what they were saying or how they said it.

This is one of dozens of experiences that ¬†I could relate. ¬†Unfortunately, even taken together, they don’t remove most of the questions I have regarding God and religion, but they do mean something. ¬† To continue with the science analogy, I am still seeking more data points before I draw my regression line.

I am interested to know what Evangelicals and Mormons alike think about this sort of anchor for a belief in God and also very interested to know what anchor’s other people’s faith. ¬† My guess is that we my have more in common on this issue than on our theology.