Thursday, November 29, 2012

Religious Experience, Memory and Reason

If I had to distill all of "Mormonism" down into one word, it would be "revelation."

Why that word?  Why not, say, "love"?  "Love" is actually the word that I would use if someone asked me to distill all religion down into a single word.  In elaborating how "revelation" is the core concept explaining Mormonism, (i.e., what precisely is revealed through Mormonism) I would hasten to add that "love" is the "what" that is revealed when we speak of what "revelation" reveals in Mormonism.

But if I were to draw a line to distinguish what Mormonism is/believes/practices from all the rest of religion, the line that I would draw is "revelation."  I would say that almost all other religion points to love as what "has been revealed."  Most Christians, for instance, would say, "Everything that God needs to reveal was revealed in the person of Christ (who revealed God As Love), a record of which we have in the Gospels.  There's no need for more revelation than that, and anything more or less than that is blasphemy."  A Mormon might say (or this Mormon says!): "What God has revealed is only part of the story, and the less important part of the story at that.  God reveals (present tense!) himself to us today in a living and resurrected Christ through living prophets and Saints.  That's why, for us, the blasphemy is to insist that the last and only time Christ could ever have revealed himself to living humans was recorded in the Book of Revelation in the ancient Near East.  We have a record of him revealing himself in the Americas, and of him announcing he would reveal himself elsewhere.  He revealed himself to a 14-year-old boy in a grove of trees in upstate New York, and in the Kirtland Temple in Ohio in 1836, and on countless other occasions to living prophets and living Saints of which we may or may not have a written, public record.  The moment we convert the present tense of the statement 'God reveals himself' into the past tense, revealed, we no longer have a living religion.  We have a remembered religion or even a dead religion.  Our definition of 'apostasy' is when we stop receiving God's current and always living revelation to us."

We understand this principle most clearly, when we pose the question, "What does it mean for a faithful Latter-day Saint to actually live her or his religion?"  And I think the best answer to that question would be: "To live our lives in such a way that we will always be in harmony with the Spirit, and to seek and to be able to receive God's guidance in our day-to-day lives."  A Latter-day Saint lives her or his faith by seeking to practice a kind of constant communion with God.  Mormons who live their faith know how to seek and receive revelation from God, and strive to live their lives in accordance with the revelation they have received.

Now there are other religions where you get some sense of this.  All religious people who have some belief in the divine seek some sort of communion with that divine.  You get a more vivid sense of this (closer to the vividness of the sense found in Mormonism) in most traditional Native American religions.  When Lakota people go on a vision quest, or prepare for and perform the Sun Dance for the purpose of seeking divine guidance for an important decision they need to make, most devout Mormons would understand exactly what they're doing and why -- though we ourselves go on similar quests through simple fasting and prayer.  When Pentecostals insist that we recognize true religion through the presence of modern day miracles and signs, they are making an observation that Mormons would universally assent to.  Though there's a line that Pentecostals are unwilling to cross: new scripture.  The fact that that's not a line Mormons are worried about gives some sense of how important a concept modern-day revelation is in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To the extent one takes issue with Mormonism as a religious system, one inevitably deals in some way with the personal or collective manifestations of revelation.  Thus, one of the most common accusations against Mormons is that they are led by "false prophets." Personal revelation is dismissed as a form of delusion -- either satanically or self- induced.  Mormons are accused of mistaking "mere" feelings for the promptings of God, etc.  The possibility of actually receiving revelation from God is denied, either categorically (as atheists would deny it), or contingently (as Evangelicals or Pentecostals would deny it in the case of Mormonism but affirm it in the Bible or in manifestations of the Spirit they consider acceptable).

For me the question is always how do I personally recognize when a revelation is true or false?  What if I receive a revelation I once recognized as true, but later conclude that it was not?  Does that call into question the whole premise of revelation as the foundation of true religion?

My dad taught me how to recognize the Spirit by putting me in situations where he felt I was guaranteed to feel the Spirit, and then asking me to be attentive, and to observe what I felt.  I could then use that as a base-line for recognizing the work of the Spirit in my life in other situations where it might be less obvious. I've come to realize this is the closest anyone can come to "teaching" us how to recognize and follow the Spirit.  Because the Spirit speaks to us internally -- in our minds and hearts -- as opposed to externally -- i.e., in an objectively audible voice -- learning to recognize and follow the promptings of the Spirit is literally something we do on our own.

The baseline my dad gave me is what I've used throughout my life to recognize and judge spiritual experiences.  Over time, those have included numerous "gifts" and different manifestations of the Spirit.  I have experienced the literal "burning in the bosom" that scripture speaks of.  I've experienced the Spirit giving me literal words or phrases that came to me as if someone were speaking them.  I have had visions, I have seen divine light, and I have had even more powerful experiences.  What I have discovered is that the intensity of the experience may vary, but the nature of the experience does not.  The most subtle "still small voice" can be just as powerful -- sometimes more powerful -- than something more tangible.

I had had many rich, powerful spiritual experiences prior to leaving the Church.  Even after leaving the Church, I could not deny the experiences themselves.  The experiences were real.  I had had them.

But there was a time in my life (which was not co-synchronous with my time outside of the Church) when I questioned the nature or the validity of these experiences.  Were the visions I'd had hallucinations?  Was the "burning in the bosom" some kind of physical or hormonal manifestation?  Were spiritual promptings I'd experienced "just feelings" or a kind of "self talk"?  Were they the result of wish fulfillment?  Did I, for example, want a testimony of the Church because, as a young child, I knew that obtaining a testimony would please my parents?  So I then proceeded to manufacture an experience for myself that could serve as a testimony?

I have found it to be true that the more I distance myself from those experiences, the less real they seem.  I could never completely deny them, but I could downplay them.  And if we can do that, isn't that as much as saying, we make anything of them we wish?  Maybe we did just manufacture them.

Questioning my spiritual experiences did lead to doubt about the spiritual experiences I'd had.  But eventually, during a time in my life that I would characterize as the most doubtful, angry period of my life, I was spiritually awakened by a manifestation of the Spirit that was so powerful and so distinct, I found it difficult if not impossible to deny or explain away.  At that point I actively fought the revelation, I tried to deny it.  But it returned again and again, persistently, I would even say lovingly, until I surrendered to it.

I feel fairly certain that had I refused to surrender for long enough, it would eventually have departed and I might at this point in my life be a confirmed atheist.  In fact, I remember that the turning point for me in my struggle with this revelation was the moment when the Spirit said to me simply, "I won't stay with you always, unless you act on what I am telling you."  At that point, I had to decide.  And I ultimately chose to surrender.

After some time of wrestling with questions of this nature, and of learning what it means to listen to and follow the Spirit, I acquired an important insight.  I can remember the very moment when I acquired this insight, because I acquired it on the verge of another, subsequent act of spiritual surrender, and the insight is related to the concept of surrender, which, I believe, is closely related to the concept of faith. It relates to a concept of faith that is illuminated by an analogy Mormons often like to use of faith being like the act of a child who leaps into a dark pit, subsequently to be caught in the loving arms of the father who had called to her from the darkness, whom she had not been able to see, but whom she trusted enough to leap into the darkness.

For me it boiled down to how I answered the question: What is the fundamental nature of our relationship with the Universe?  Is the Universe hostile to us?  Does it seek to destroy us? Is the Universe indifferent to us? Do we exist by chance? Do we thrive merely by a combination of luck and perseverance? Or does the Universe love us? Does it yearn for our happiness and reach out eagerly toward us, like the finger of God painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel?

How I answered this question determined how I might answer a (to me) very urgent corollary question: If some voice is speaking to me, some voice which speaks to me deep in my heart, piercing through to my "inmost parts," but seems to be not of me, seems to be coming to me from somewhere "out there," out from beyond, should I trust it?  Should I listen to it?  Because if there is some Great I Am who is capable of reaching me, of speaking to me, it could be all powerful but I should not trust it if it is not beneficent, if it wills to harm me.  And if it were indifferent to me, then I cannot imagine why it would speak to me; so I should interpret this voice as my own imagination.  But if it is all powerful and Love Incarnate, then I should surrender.  I should throw myself into the dark pit, trusting the voice of a father promising to catch me, and I would be caught.

I did have experience to rely on.  The Spirit had told me that the Church was true, and so I had trusted the words of scripture and teachers and begun to learn love and service and patience.  And all these things had been good.  And, yes, I had learned homophobia in the Church too, and the homophobia hurt me.  It almost destroyed me!  But before it could destroy me, I had received another prompting through the Spirit reassuring me that my gayness was a good part of me, which gave me the courage to begin to work that out over the course of the years.  And this was a very, very good thing!  So even where the Church had failed me, the Spirit had not.  In other words, the Church is not perfect, but God is.  Every Sunday School child knows that truth.  The Spirit prompted me to leave the Church for a time, which I did, and learned many important things in doing so.  The Spirit prompted me to seek out and find my husband, the man I have loved for over 20 years now, and who has helped me to grow and become wiser and stronger than I was before I met him.  And that is also good.  So the Spirit did not lead me astray there either.  And the Spirit has so often comforted me in grief and given me courage in fear, and the more I reflected on it, the more I realized that the Spirit had always been a light to me in the darkness.  I could look back over the arc of my life and see the Spirit leading me from good to greater good to greatest good.

So now that the Spirit was prompting me to believe in God again, and to trust in God's goodness, and to come back to the Church and be faithful, what was most reasonable for me to do?

And even the very most rational, most skeptical part of me could look at that and think: Maybe there is no God.  But even if this voice which is speaking to me is nothing but my own subconscious, somehow it has never significantly led me astray.  Maybe even if this voice is just me talking to myself, it seems to be the best part of myself, the part of me that I should trust and follow.  Faith could be what we choose to believe.  Maybe it is all just inside of me.  Maybe God is like the God of Alcoholics Anonymous: whatever we make him.  Maybe, maybe.  But even then it still seemed wise to just trust, and see what happens.  And I have, and incredible good has happened.  The greater the trust, the greater the good.

And I could just continue in trust, suspending belief in God.  I could just say, I don't know what this is, but I'll continue to follow it as long as it leads me good places.  But there comes a point where you realize that what you are learning is principles like faith (trust), love, compassion, patience, hope, strength, and you are learning that there is a power greater than you that gives you strength greater than you imagined yourself capable of, and you begin to realize that what you have is something like a copy of the Sacred Word, an internal guidebook of life like the Standard Works, written and guarded in your heart, and that points you toward the same thing that those external paper and ink Standard Works point you to, namely God.  So why not just give it up and call it God?

Because ultimately what you also learn is that the longer you tread in that path of goodness, the one feeling that comes to overwhelm all the other feelings is simple gratitude.  Which makes no sense if the Universe is just emptiness and indifference and non-entity.  We can only be meaningfully grateful to Some One.  So God must exist if only to be the One To Whom We Give Thanks.

There are moments of darkness and anguish in life, when the view is obstructed, when faith seems naive and stupid.  Sometimes those moments seem to stretch out into something like a life time.  I'll grant that.  And we can always choose to curse God and die.  I choose the alternative.

In relation to remembered spiritual experiences, what I have found is that we can dismiss or downplay spiritual experiences from our past much in the way that our memories of someone we once knew many years ago can become distorted caricatures of the real person.  When we remember a person, we focus on certain traits of that individual that we remember to the exclusion of other traits we actually experienced but choose not to remember.  The longer time separates memory from the actual experience, the more distorted the caricature.  But when we know and interact with a living person on a day to day basis, our memory -- our internal image of that person -- is constantly challenged by the reality of that person.  Our memories never surprise us.  But a real person often surprises us, as we learn more about that person we didn't know before.  So it is with God.

And this is why, for me, a True Gospel is always about revelation in the present tense.  Yes, God is the God who was with me yesterday, and last year, and ten years ago, and who was with my ancestors a hundred and a thousand and ten thousand years ago.  The God of our memories is God, which is one reason God commands us to remember.  The scriptures are the collective expression of our obedience to that commandment: "Remember me."  But the God I know best is the God who is here with me in the now.  The God I turn to every day, whom I know through obedience to the commandment, "Pray always without ceasing."

It is through the understanding granted by that present God, the God who never ceases to surprise me, that I am able to make sense of memory and enter the future with hope.

1 comment:

Ben said...

There is nothing better than being led by the spirit. Knowing that God is directing your life is very rewarding.