Tag Archives: epistemology

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #4

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Photo Credit: Mode Images/Alamy

Photo Credit: Mode Images/Alamy

~  Postcard #4  I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift.  ~

I’ll introduce Postcard #4 with an excerpt from a story:

ONCE THERE WAS A BOY who lived in a village. At the heart of this village was an orchard filled with many kinds of trees. The boy loved to play there. He would dance barefoot under the blossoms in springtime, and when the sun grew hot he would rest under the leafy shade. As the boy grew, he would reach up to the branches and pluck peaches and apples and pears. The fruit was juicy and sweet and filled the boy with joy. When the Village Elders taught him that the fruit’s sweetness proved that their village, and their village alone, possessed the One True Orchard, the boy wept with gratitude.

The boy found it wondrous that he happened to live in the one village in all the world in which The One True Orchard grew. He began to feel compassion for the people of other villages. The day came when he filled his backpack with fruit and set out to let others know about his special village.

One beautiful morning the boy came to a new village. A young man walked by. The boy said, “My friend, if you taste a piece of this fruit you will come to know the Truth.” The young man stopped. “I have been searching for something,” he said, “maybe this is it.” The boy gave him a piece of fruit and after a moment asked, “Is it not sweet?”  “Yes, it is sweet,” admitted the man. The boy’s face shone with light. “Now that you have tasted the sweetness of this piece of fruit,” the boy explained, “you know for yourself that the tree from which it was plucked must be a True Tree. You know the gardener who planted those trees must have been a True Gardener. And you know the whole orchard, and every tree in it, must be the One True Orchard.” The man hesitated. “That is what the sweetness means?” the man asked. “Yes,” the boy answered, “that is what the sweetness means.”

The story, of course, is mine. And it’s the story of millions of other Mormons whose testimony of the exclusive validity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rooted in a genuine, personal experiences with sweetness. We tend to interpret these spiritual experiences as a kind of celestial variation that our church must be right. 

Let me explain.

As Latter-day Saints, we are taught that spiritual feelings, such as a “burning of the bosom,” or a peaceful assurance, can be understood as personal revelations from God witnessing that our church–and only our church—is true. 

As a young man, whenever those feelings came to me as a boy—whether singing hymns, reading sublime passages of scripture, engaged in sincere prayer, or passing the sacramental bread up and down rows of saintly white-haired widows–they confirmed I was in God’s One True Church.

Later, as a missionary, this became the logic by which we persuaded others: If someone felt spiritual feelings, it was offered up as proof that our church was true, meaning that the totality of our teachings, practices, scriptures, organizational structure, and founding narratives were divinely and uniquely inspired. This was not done manipulatively; we genuinely understood this as the divine “pattern” for how God would let people know they should become Mormons. Let’s say, for example, that we invited an investigator to read from the Book of Mormon, perhaps the passage where Jesus is blessing the children. If they felt a surge of love and goodness after reading that part, then I guided them into understanding that (1) the Spirit had just witnessed that the Book of Mormon was an ancient record; and therefore, (2) Joseph Smith was a true prophet; and therefore, (3) all his teachings are from God; and therefore, (4) our church has the only legitimate claim to the priesthood authority; and therefore, (5) all other churches are false.

When it comes to spiritual experiences, I’m no cynic. I unabashedly admit that these experiences have enriched my life. But am I justified in citing those experiences as proof that my beliefs are legitimate while someone else’s are not?

Here’s why this is problematic. Firstly, the chain of reasoning itself is deeply flawed: the reality of “A” does not necessarily prove the truth of “B,” “C,” and “D.” Secondly, these supernal feelings don’t just manifest in Mormon contexts. I know people from other faiths who cite their own sacred experiences as proof that their beliefs are correct. How to account for this? Well, I used to chalk it up to their propensity for self-deception—a vulnerability to which members of my faith were somehow immune.  

Now I’ve found myself “feeling the Spirit” both inside and outside a Mormon context: meditating with Buddhists; reciting scripture sacred to Hindus; listening to the liturgical chant of Benedictine monks; attending a Suquamish tribal funeral; visiting Grace Cathedral in San Francisco; holding signs at Pride Parades that express God’s love; participating in the Episcopalian Eucharist; awakening to a neighborhood mosque’s call to prayer in Jaipur; visiting Gandhi’s ashram in New Delhi. Each of these moments invokes its own sense of grace, of devotion, love, and peace. 

So what shall I make of those unbounded, profligate feelings? Should I interpret them as the Holy Ghost prompting me to flip-flop from one religion to another? Is it possible that, if these feelings do have a divine provenance, perhaps a heavenly Seal of Approval is getting stamped liberally across everything that’s good? And what if neuroscientists are right, that humans are hard-wired for these sort of phenomena? Should my own subjective experiences, while precious to me, be privileged above another’s subjective experience?

These are not easy questions, and I don’t have any definitive answers to them. 

My heart tells me that spiritual experiences are not exclusive experiences that prove something is true, but are universal experiences that witness something is good

Whatever their source, I continue to cherish the feelings I’ve come to associate with the Spirit. I continue to cultivate the attitudes and habits of mind that lead me to feel more love and more compassion and more joy in the happiness of others. These are the Fruits of the Spirit. To me, they are sweet above all that is sweet.

I’m grateful for the Orchard that surrounds me. And I’m grateful for the Orchards that surround us all.

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Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #2

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: An Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources.

Postcard #2  I WANT TO SEE THE WHOLE ELEPHANT

Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon the false assumption that we somehow have all the answers—that we in fact have a corner on truth—for we do not.”       

–Hugh B. Brown

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DO YOU KNOW THE HINDU PARABLE of the blind men and the elephant? It has come to express a core element of my spiritual philosophy, which is the need for epistemological humility. That’s just a fancy way of admitting we all see through a glass darkly, that our vision of reality is limited by what our particular perspective allows us to take in.

In the parable, one blind man after another goes into a room. Each comes out again in breathless awe at what he has experienced. Eager to share his new understanding of the nature of God, the first man describes God as a long, smooth spear. The second interrupts, revealing that God is more like a flapping fan. The third patiently explains that, no, God is a stout pillar. You’re all crazy, the next says; he’s learned from direct experience that God is actually a tasseled rope. Soon the blind men are clenching their fists and calling each other names and swearing up and down that the others must either be lying or delusional. Eventually the men go their separate ways and, with their partial descriptions of God, each starts his own religion. To this day, their followers argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, certain they have the whole truth.

I retold this parable once in India to a crowd of children from the leprosy colonies. Something about their earnest faces and their willingness to learn from a stranger inspired me to change the ending. I brought up a little girl from the crowd and explained that when the blind men stumbled out of the room and described their separate visions to the villagers, a little girl like this one sat and listened with her whole heart. She believed each man when he described God as a spear, or a fan, or a pillar, or a rope. And each description stretched her imagination, creating a little more space in her heart and in her mind. By listening, she made room for the whole elephant; she made room for God.

Yesterday I said I find myself listening more and more to the stories of others. I suppose I’m making room, too, like the little girl. But this receptiveness rubs against a key tenet of Mormonism: we are taught that only within the LDS Church can we come to a correct understanding of the nature of God. The founder of our religion came out of that room and told us he could see the whole elephant. And so we stopped listening to everyone else. 

I want to keep listening, to keep learning. My spiritual imagination is only enhanced when I allow for new possibilities, new ways of understanding something I thought I knew.  

I’ve come to realize that any conception of God I can wrap my arms around is still too narrow to take in the whole elephant.

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