Thursday, February 25, 2010

What the Spirit is Not

In numerous posts, I've described encounters I've had with the Spirit. I've taken extra care in many of these posts to discuss the nature of these experiences, partly because I regard it as being of primary importance to discern between what is actually the Spirit, what is just my own (for lack of a better term) wishful thinking, and what might be spiritual deception by (for lack of a better term) dark forces.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and he was describing some important decisions he has made recently, and his own process of discernment. He has felt guided by the Spirit in these decisions, and I was impressed by his attitude. When he experienced a prompting from the Spirit, he explained to me, he gives it time. He waits long enough to properly discern whether it is a true prompting.

As I have matured in my spiritual journey, I too have learned that if a prompting is a true prompting, it will still be true after I've slept on it and given it some more thought. I have also learned that it is reasonable to seek validation, when possible, that a prompting is true. For example, last year when I felt prompted by the Spirit to bear my testimony in Fast and Testimony Meeting, the Spirit urged me to ask permission from my Bishop. My Bishop gave me permission to bear my testimony, and the following week he volunteered that he felt the Spirit confirming that that was the right thing to do. So the process of asking permission and my Bishop's prompting were validations that my own prompting was true. That makes sense, because the Spirit was essentially prompting me to do something out of harmony with the rules of the Church. Good order is a principle of the Gospel, and the Spirit will never have a problem with fact checking. We can seek more mundane validations as well. Objectivity (though frequently elusive) is a good thing.

There are situations -- urgent situations! -- where the Spirit might prompt us to do something now. We may not have time to sleep on it and think about it or validate beforehand. Or there may be situations where we will be called upon to act in faith, and have our faith be validated later, after we've done what the Lord has asked of us. In my experience, in those situations the prompting is clear enough and strong enough that we will know what is required of us.

It is important for us to learn to recognize the Spirit's unique personality at places like Church, where we know the Spirit is present, so that we can avoid being deceived. The more we listen to and follow the Spirit, the better we become at discerning it and distinguishing it from other influences we may feel, either internal or external. It's like anything else in life. Practice makes perfect.

The ultimate validation of spiritual promptings comes over the course of many years, as the fruits of the Spirit become evident in our lives.

I've seen a couple of statements by Mohohawaii, comparing the Spirit to a "rush of emotion." Whenever I've discussed the Spirit previously, I've tried to be at pains to point out that this is what the Spirit is not.

The best analogy I can think of in terms of how I discern the Spirit is to compare it to how I experience other, mortal personages. Different people have different personalities and project themselves in different ways. My husband has a very different personality from our son. Not only are their personalities different, they are also physically different. They carry themselves differently, they walk differently. If I am sitting at the dining room table with my face away from the stairs, if one of them comes down the stairs I can usually tell who is coming without seeing him just by hearing how the floorboards creak and the pattern of their steps. They walk differently. When I am carrying on a conversation with my husband, the quality of that conversation is different from the quality of the conversation with my son. They have different senses of humor, different approaches to problems, different ways of expressing themselves. If I were blind and deaf, and could only communicate with them in some more abstract manner, I would still be able to -- with enough interaction -- discern who was actually speaking to me, because of the differences between them. In fact, they are different enough that I would probably discern fairly quickly.

OK. I love my husband. My heart often does flutter in his presence. If he has been gone for a long time, I may even feel a "rush of emotion" when he shows up. Interacting with my husband, however, does not produce a single emotion every time I interact with him. Depending on the quality of interaction, I may feel levity, sadness, anger, delight, calm, etc. It all depends on what we are discussing and what is happening between us and around us. The feelings I experience in his presence are different from the quality of his personality, different from his presence itself. Furthermore, very many (though not all) of the feelings I experience in his presence I may experience elsewhere when he is absent. For example, I may see a movie or have a conversation or smell a scent that triggers a memory of him, and that causes me to experience a feeling that I felt in his presence. But all that is different from actually having him present.

It is the same with the Spirit.

Now I went for very many years without the Spirit in my life. During all those years, I would experience art or go to a movie or listen to music that would bring on a "rush of emotion." Frequently these rushes of emotion would trigger memories of spiritual experiences I had as a youth when I was active in the Church. But I now recognize that they were not the same thing as those spiritual experiences.

The reason I know that is because when I finally did feel the presence of the Spirit again in August 2005, I immediately knew A) that what I was experiencing in that moment was utterly distinct from the usual emotions that are often categorized as "spiritual," and B) that I had not experienced it in a very long time, in many, many years. Now people can tell me I did not know what I was experiencing, or I was mistaken, or whatever they want. I know what I experienced. It was as clear and unequivocal to me as any other sensory experience I might have of meeting a particular person at a particular time in a particular locale.

Am I saying it's not possible to doubt that what I experienced was really the Spirit? No, of course doubt is always possible. Doubt is possible about much more mundane things too. I'm so absent-minded, half the time I doubt whether I locked the front door behind me when I'm half-way to the grocery store. But the nature of what I experienced I could not deny. It was not just a "rush of emotion." I'm content to let the rest of my life be the validation of whether or not I did in fact meet the Spirit in at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake on that particular August afternoon in 2005.

Of course listening to the Spirit is not a "golden path" to truth in the sense that we don't have to work at it, or in the sense that there's no possibility for human error. Of course people make mistakes and do terrible things in the name of God, claiming to be guided by the Spirit. Of course. That's why I discussed at the outset the importance of training oneself in skills of discernment, and validating whenever possible. But to point out that people can make mistakes in discerning the Spirit doesn't invalidate the principle. Discerning the Spirit has become an essential component of my life path, one that I have validated to my satisfaction time and time again. The Spirit steadies me, comforts me, and gives me vision, insight and strength. It makes no more sense to me to dispense with the Spirit because of human error in discerning the Spirit than it makes to dispense with scientific method because scientists make mistakes.

I have always encouraged (and will continue to encourage) everyone I meet to follow whatever path seems best to them, the only requirement being that they do so with integrity. That's what I've tried to do.


adamf said...

Thanks for this post. It has given me some new things to ponder, specifically your comparison of certain feelings around someone, vs. the feeling of their presence...

MoHoHawaii said...

I've seen a couple of statements by Mohohawaii, comparing the Spirit to a "rush of emotion." Whenever I've discussed the Spirit previously, I've tried to be at pains to point out that this is what the Spirit is not.

You underestimate my understanding of religious experience. I know exactly the experiences you describe as promptings of the Spirit. I am as fully fluent in these matters as you. Believe me, there is no aspect of Mormonism that I have not fully internalized, lived, believed and dedicated my life to. With respect to the total Mormon experience I am as much a native speaker as you are. Mormonism is as natural a form of religious expression for me as it is for you or any other LDS person, and my experience of the Spirit throughout my life is precisely the same as other Mormon.

The only point of difference is in the interpretation of the meaning and cause of this experience. I have evidence that what Mormons call the Spirit is fully consistent with the complex phenomenon of human perception. For me, it does not need to be explained in supernatural terms. It is human (and yes, it feels transcendent, as if it comes from far beyond the self. This is the nature of this particular experience.) I actually used the phrase "rush of affirmation" not "rush of emotion." I chose these words specifically to indicate the special, almost out-of-body nature of this kind of experience.

You interpret this experience as divine communication. I fully respect your interpretation, although it differs from my own. I hope that you can respect the fact that I in fact do understand (and have witnessed) the experience itself.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - It's not the word "emotion" vs. "affirmation" that differs with my perception of how the Spirit works as much as the word "rush." It seemed to me that you were comparing the Spirit to what I feel when I watch a tear-jerker movie.

I am aware of some of the theories of the brain that explain religious experience. I acknowledge that individuals can choose to interpret religious experience different ways. And I think I've also been at pains to say here and in other settings that I don't begrudge you the right to interpret religion and religious experience according to your own best lights and I don't condemn you for your choices or consider them invalid. You know I don't think that way.

Faith is how I've largely made my way through the world. The best decisions I've ever made -- the decisions that have brought me the greatest happiness in life -- have been made as a result of prayer, fasting, and listening to the Spirit. Far from being tossed to and fro by whimsical "feelings" (or "rushes of affirmation" or whatever you want to call them) my interaction with the Spirit has brought me into contact with a ground of existence that I have validated time and time again. Whether you want to call it internal or external, there is an objective reality that my religious experience has brought me in touch with. It has been a faithful guide.

Terms like "rush of affirmation" feel dismissive.

J G-W said...

adamf - I'm glad you have found this helpful. I think most of us respond to the Spirit in an intuitive way, and I don't think we necessarily need to dissect the experience in the way I have here for it to "work" for us. But I do think it is important to learn to distinguish between feelings and the Spirit, and this comparison of the relationship between a presence and our reaction to that presence has been useful to me in my own efforts at discernment.

MoHoHawaii said...

Re "rush." Okay, now I get it. I certainly didn't mean to be dismissive in any way. I understand how absolutely profound the experience of the Spirit can be. I've even had a few of these myself.

This is one of the hard parts of interfaith dialog-- we speak of things that are central and precious to each other. It's a delicate subject. It's the converse of the pearls before swine problem. As swine, you want to be respectful and express your understanding and love, but it doesn't always make it across the gap.

I sincerely apologize if you now or ever have heard me dismiss the significance or power of spiritual experience, especially your spiritual experience.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - This is why we talk.

In my class the other night we were talking about the splintering of American society along lines of religion -- a natural consequence of the "free market of ideas" that is American culture. If you don't like what someone else believes, you go your own way and find a group of people who think exactly like you. That allows us to begin to distort and misrepresent others (and avoid being challenged).

The advantage of insisting on a diverse community is we keep each other honest. Challenging each other is a necessary part of that, so the occasional tension between us is a good thing, I guess. So is the strengthened mutual respect that comes out the other side of challenging/being challenged.

Thanks for that!

MoHoHawaii said...

It's funny. I interact with you on your blog because I'm very, very fond of you. I like the way our conversations make me feel.

I also agree with you about not walling yourself off into a clique of like-minded people. It's very important to avoid this kind of dead end. You certainly challenge my dearly held prejudices. :- ) I like that.

I was thinking a bit about the word "rush" that you objected to. My use of that word was to invoke the idea of Pentecost (as in Acts 2):

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

This iconic description of the Spirit describes it as a case of sudden onset or rush. Anyway, that's where I was coming from.

J G-W said...

Well, yes, I can see the Pentecost analogy. Yes, I can relate the experience of a "rush" or an "in-flowing" or a "flash" of inspiration. But we also have a promise of more quiet and steady contacts with the Holy Spirit, the "still, small voice," and an "abiding" and a "companionship" that is promised to the faithful.

I guess I'm sensitive to language about this stuff that seems reductionist, that seems to want to explain away religious experience so we can just tidily tuck it away and ignore it...

I think we do so at our peril. Religious experience is powerful. People can be abused and manipulated if they are spiritually illiterate (which is what I think we're seeing in Uganda right now, for instance). We need to be spiritually adept/literate. We need to learn skills of discernment, validation, listening, trust, patience, etc.

I think what I see with a lot of gay Mormons -- and I include myself in this -- is that we abandon spirituality all together because of abuse or pain that we've experienced in spiritual settings. But at some level, our faith systems are still in there, operating subconsciously. Demons (or angels!) that we need to wrestle in order to mature spiritually remain unwrestled. And we become haunted by what we've run away from.

This is maybe why I'm sensitive about perceived reductionism. Because essentially, this is like saying, "This isn't real, therefore we need not concern ourselves with it." Until I accepted that this was real and I needed to come to terms with it, I could not progress.

Beck said...

One of the things that keeps me hanging around this blogging community is the interchange of ideas such as this one - particularly between you and MOHOH. I really like this as it motivates me to think and ponder.

As for the spirit, often it is the "still small voice" of assurance, where one can sleep on it, but sometimes it is much more abrupt - particularly for me when I receive a clear direction to go find someone, or reach out to a particular person RIGHT NOW! As I respond to those "rushes" or "promptings", I am always amazed and grateful for responding.

MoHoHawaii said...

I have always affirmed the meaning and power of religious experience, even though I approach the subject from a secular and humanist perspective. Are you saying that disbelief itself constitutes reductionism?

I can't buy that. I have wrestled with the many issues of faith thoughtfully, sincerely and prayerfully throughout my life. Like you, there was a time in my youth when my life hung in the balance because of the irreconcilable demands of my faith and my sexuality. The question of belief was of life-or-death importance. I eventually came to a different conclusion than you did, but I certainly don't see my way as superior to any of the other possible paths, including yours. In fact, in terms of happiness, I can safely say it's inferior to yours. But it's what I'm capable of. Although freedom from belief has been a relief from suffering and a blessing to me, it probably only works this way for a minority of folks. Most people need faith in their lives. You sometimes argue that I need faith in my life. (I never argue that you would benefit from disbelief.)

Somehow I'd like to find common ground in this thread. I know it exists.

[As an aside-- I too find malign spirituality to be a dangerous phenomenon, whether it is the current Ugandan anti-gay jihad or the darker parts of our own faith tradition that can encourage young gay people to take their lives. I see these more as cases of moral corruption than as cases of ignorance. The extremist Archbishop of Uganda has a very well developed theological framework that justifies his crimes against humanity. Our own complicity as a people in the suicides of gay Mormon youth is our collective sin, not our collective naivete.]

MoHoHawaii said...

Okay, since posting that last comment, I reread the thread from top to bottom.

I think the issue is the feeling of transcendence. You get this with strong religious experiences. You don't when you see a tear-jerker movie. They are very different experiences, as anyone who has had these experiences can tell you. I used language that made you think that I was denying the overwhelming sensations of transcendence that can accompany spiritual experiences.

For the record, I absolutely do recognize how such experiences are perceived by those who have them. These are the basics of spiritual practice, and, yes, I do get it.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii -- Thank you for a very good conversation. Your comments have provoked a lot of reflection.

I am aware of non-theistic perspectives that incorporate the spiritual or transcendent elements of life into their worldviews. Certain forms of Buddhism and a variety of Eastern martial arts disciplines readily spring to mind. Did you know that American atheists in the late nineteenth century actually created atheist churches, complete with rituals, prayers, hymns, and secular Sunday schools? I suppose many Unitarian churches have also evolved a kind of non-theistic spirituality, and have become the worship community of choice for people who don't believe in God.

But honestly, I don't hear a lot of encouragement by atheists to take transcendent/spiritual experience seriously. Usually the opposite. Anybody who trusts or relies on such experience is characterized as flaky at best and dangerous at worst. There's a sort of attitude of, "That's nice if it makes you feel good, but don't pay too much attention to it." Am I wrong?

I've spent a lot of time in liberal churches, and they're pretty weak in this area too.

I hope what I'm about to say doesn't come across the wrong way. I'm speaking more about how I have experienced this. I did spend a good number of years of my life as an unbeliever/agnostic. I wavered between believing there couldn't possibly be a God, given all the pain and suffering in the world, and given the stupidity and cruelty of so many who call themselves his followers, on the one hand, and believing that if God existed he was heartless and unreasonable, on the other. A lot of that was filtered through my anger at how I had been treated because of my sexual orientation. I took a very secular view of knowledge, and for a time came to feel ambivalent and doubtful about some of the spiritual experiences I'd had earlier in life.

At the time I had this pivotal spiritual experience in August 2005 that changed my perspective on things, I was deeply entrenched in that perspective. I had a pretty pessimistic view of the world, and as I said, either didn't believe in God or was angry at God if he existed. And the experience I had took me completely by surprise; I experienced pure forgiveness and love and acceptance in the presence of God, and I realized that I had had nothing to be angry about at all... It was all a problem of my own distorted perspective. I asked (and received) forgiveness for my own short-sightedness, and my life was literally transformed.

From my present perspective, my atheistic/agnostic approach to the world was not equivalent to/merely different from my theistic perspective. It was less complete. It did not accept all the data at my disposal. It dismissed certain very important data about the world and about myself and about my relationship to God and to the cosmos. My current theistic perspective does not dismiss any data -- transcendent or mundane. To me it feels more whole.

I guess I shouldn't make assumptions about where other people are on their journey. Your own journey with this is obviously very different from mine.

I have stated that I wish you could have the kind of relationship with God that I have. I am very happy. I wish the same for you. That's all... You know I don't judge you, and ultimately don't see the path you've chosen as inferior. As you know, I prefer honest atheists to creepy, dishonest theists, and bottom line I think the world is a richer, better, happier place because of people like Richard Dawkins, and my friend Candy, and the Unitarian Church, and, of course, you. I'm as interested to see where this path can take you as hopefully you are. I want you to find all the happiness you can with it, for what it's worth...