The fundamental divide between Mormon theology and traditional Christian theology may stem from their starting point. Moses tells us of how Jacob wrestled with God in the desert in a place he called Peniel – where he saw God face to face. To Mormons, this is the starting point for all theology i.e. the words received face to face with God. Put simply, the state of being before face of God is considered the only place where the simple Truth can be found. If anything is, this concept is the beating heart of Mormonism.
Joseph Smith’s peniel approach to truth is elegantly simple- and extremely powerful in its simplicity. It slashes through theological argument, making irrelevant entire worldviews. The approach depends on two important moves. First, Joseph affirms as a simple fact that seeing something with spiritual eyes is equivalent to seeing something with actual eyes, i.e. a person’s vision of reality is the same in character as that person’s real vision. Seeing an angel “in the spirit” is no less trustworthy than seeing the angel with actual eyes. This point is most simply made in Joseph’s statement that spiritual things were also physical- i.e. as much a part of the world as earth, wind, and fire. This would come naturally to someone who understood the world in a magical way. Joseph taught that empirical experiences of the prophets, combined with his own, could more clearly explain the magic that was in the world.
This idea is – as Mormons might put it – very strong doctrine. It’s salience comes in its simplicity, it does not distinguish between classes of experience that are often indistinguishable to the person experiencing them. Joseph was in good company in making this move. In a sense, this was the key intuition founding Descartes’ philosophy that paved the way for clarity in science.
I put my six-year-old son to bed the other night and reminded him to say his prayers. ten or fifteen minutes later he came down with a huge smile on his face, he wanted to call his mom and tell her something (his mother and I are not married anymore). It was too late so he went back to bed. First thing the next morning he came directly downstairs and called his mother to tell her about the feeling he had when he was praying. He explained to her, and later me, that he had this amazing feeling when he was praying and could not stop smiling about it. Watching this experience–like so many I have had as a parent– was like looking into a mirror reflecting myself at his age.
Of course this experience raises so many questions for me, and for perhaps should raise this questions for all Christians: How do we explain the witness of the Spirit to a child.
I actually do not have a good answer– a satisfactory explanation of spiritual experience like this is perhaps the biggest question I have in life. I know there are all kinds, including those that do not involve belief in God, but my son deserves one. And he deserves one in language he can understand. I reject many aspects of the explanation he is routinely given at LDS church, and I am not satisfied with what I did tell them. So I put it to anyone who reads this–how would you explain this experience to my son, if he was yours?