In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James subjected to scientific scrutiny particular kinds of experience, including spiritual impressions, inspiration that seemed to come from some outside source, unseen "presences," auditory phenomena, and visions. He considered data from different historical epochs, and from many different religious sources: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, Christian Science, New Thought, and even Atheist or Agnostic. (Yes, atheists can have spiritual experiences!)
James professed agnosticism as to the actual sources of revelation. Whether revelation emanated from actual unseen but unknown entities, or from gods, or from God, or whether it was a function of human psychology, he refused to draw any hard, fast conclusions. James took a fairly pragmatic approach to this problem by applying a test that most religious folks themselves could hardly disagree with. We should judge a religious experience, he said, by the fruit it produces. When someone has a religious experience, does it make him or her more compassionate, hopeful and patient? Does it inspire more effective efforts to improve one's own lot in life, and to improve the world around us? If it does, James suggested, then we might consider the experience to have validity, regardless of what we judge to be its source.
James suggested three very practical rules for dealing with revelation.
Rule Number One. A revelation must be authoritative for the person who receives it. James points out that to the person who has had a spiritual experience -- whether it be a more common experience, like feeling a spiritual prompting, or a rarer and more dramatic experience, like seeing a vision -- to that person the experience is sensory data. Despite the extraordinary nature of the experience, it is every bit as compelling to those who have experienced it as ordinary sight, hearing and touch is to them and to everyone else. To tell individuals that they did not see a vision or experience a prompting is futile and perhaps even harmful. And individuals who have received a revelation have no choice but to order their lives so as to be in harmony with the information proffered through that experience or experiences.
Rule Number Two. A revelation cannot be authoritative for anyone else but the person who has received the revelation. Every individual is obliged to steer their lives in accordance with the best knowledge that they personally are able to obtain about the nature of existence and the choices available to them within the context of that understanding. The fact of having received a revelation does not in and of itself make a person an authority over others, or give them the right to dictate how others should respond to that revelation.
This, by the way, is eminently consistent with the approach taken by the Prophet Joseph Smith in relation to the revelations he claimed to have received. From the founding of the LDS Church in 1830 to the present, converts have joined not simply because they were impressed by the Prophet's account of what he experienced and were willing to take his word for it, but because they themselves had spiritual experiences confirming the truthfulness of his revelations. Those experiences could be subtle, or they could be dramatic. But in this sense, the LDS Church was and always has been founded on the rock of personal revelation and testimony.
When I was a kid, I remember being profoundly impressed by the fact that my dad taught me not to base my faith on his or my mom's faith. He raised me to believe that when I was old enough, I should gather information about different religions and make my own decision. And though it broke my dad's heart when I left the LDS Church for a time, he respected my decision. Which, of course, made the reaffirmation of my testimony and my desire to return to the LDS Church that much more meaningful.
Rule Number Three. While a revelation can only be authoritative to those who have received the revelation, those who have not received revelations of their own should be willing to consider and take seriously the data that is available to them from those who have.
This is actually the central argument of The Varieties of Religious Experience. James demonstrates, very persuasively I think, that despite the great diversity and seemingly contradictory content of the many different revelations received by various prophets, mystics, and saints throughout the ages, there are in fact startlingly consistent patterns that mark these kinds of experience as genuine. Furthermore, individuals who have bona fide experiences generally change their lives in predictable ways (e.g., they become demonstrably more patient, virtuous and compassionate, more willing and able to make total personal sacrifices for some greater good, etc.). Furthermore, James argues, the kinds of life changes wrought through these experiences do not appear capable of having been wrought in any other way.
James, in other words, argues that even those who never have these kinds of experiences have sufficiently compelling observable evidence that there is something objectively real in them to be obliged to take these experiences seriously. The invisible world has an observable, measurable impact on the visible world. To refuse to take this seriously, he suggests, might be comparable to a blind man who refuses to consider a seeing man's testimony about the existence of color.
James makes a very helpful clarification in his lecture on "Philosophy" regarding what he calls "compelling" or "coercive" arguments about religion. Believers have frequently tried -- but have always objectively failed -- to use revelatory experiences to create air-tight, logically unassailable arguments in support of particular religious outlooks. Non-believers have similarly attempted to convert believers through coercive argumentation as well. The fact that many churches, denominations, sects, and philosophical schools continue to exist, he argues, is proof positive that logical argument cannot persuade in such matters. Thus, James is somewhat skeptical about the value of systematic theologies or worldly philosophies. But he is enthusiastic about what he calls the "science of religion." Religious experience has a valid, valuable place in human society, and should be studied and taken seriously.
James' insights are helpful, I think, in sorting out the current quandary over homosexuality and the Church. I am convinced it is supremely unhelpful for Church leaders and adherents to argue that gay men and lesbians must simply ignore their own personal experience in order to accept and obey the Church's authoritative teaching on the subject of homosexuality. This is not only counter-intuitive but can actually be harmful. Ultimately, that which must be most authoritative in the life of any human being is that person's own experience.
If a gay man or lesbian experiences their sexuality as a core part of who they are, as an intimate and inherent aspect of their soul, it is vain and futile to tell them otherwise. If they find joy and spiritual strength in a loving, committed relationship with someone of the same sex, you only discredit yourself by telling them that same-sex relationships are hollow and sinful. What they have experienced and know is what they have experienced and know, and no one will likely convince them otherwise. The only way to convince a person under such circumstances is to undermine their confidence in their ability to know themselves, to perceive the world around them, and to make moral choices. And that is the spiritual equivalent of destroying the village in order to save it. No one thus persuaded will be made fit for any kind of meaningful spiritual or moral existence.
On the other hand, regardless of how powerful our journey out of the closet and into self-awareness has been, and regardless of how joyful, loving, and meaningful our relationships with our life-partners are, gay men and lesbians cannot expect members and leaders of the Church to lightly reevaluate what they consider to be authoritative teaching about human nature and the nature of the family. At the very least, they will not do so until they have seen convincing good fruit resulting from the kinds of decisions that gay men and lesbians are making in relation to sexuality and relationships. In a time scheme that measures everything against eternity, it is not unreasonable to expect that Church leaders will want to see good fruit that lasts not just a few years, but at least a lifetime and beyond.
I would like to suggest three correlates of James' rules, as they apply to the situation of GLBT folks in relation to the Church:
Correlate Number One. We have a right consider our personal experience in coming to terms with our sexual orientation as authoritative for us, and we have the right to seek and to receive personal revelation in relation to the decisions we make based on that experience. We do not need to wait for anyone else to "get it" -- either in or out of the Church -- to accept as authoritative and apply our own learning on this subject.
Correlate Number Two. We need to be patient with family and friends, and with Church members and leaders as they figure out what to make of our experience and our decisions.
Correlate Number Three. It most likely will take time for the fruits of our decisions -- either positive or negative -- to show in our lives. We may experience positive fruits initially -- positive enough that we are willing to commit our lives in a certain way. Still, it may take time for us to feel certain that we've made the right choices for ourselves. It may take even longer for others to be convinced. There is no quick, easy way to move forward collectively. However, our voices deserve to be heard, just as we have an obligation to very carefully consider the Church's authoritative teaching and try to make sense of it in relation to our own personal experience.
This is why I can't stress enough how important it is for us to wrestle with issues in our lives related to sexuality within a framework of faith. So often in life we have nothing more to go on than a gut instinct. We need to trust that God loves us, and that, if we listen, he is capable of guiding us to our greatest and highest good. We also need to believe in our own goodness, and trust that we have all the resources we need to make these decisions. We need to trust the process. We will make mistakes and require course changes along the way. But if we are honest with ourselves, if we do our homework, if we wrestle, study and sincerely desire to do what is right, we may have confidence that the decisions we make for ourselves are right for us, no matter what anyone else may say.