Back when I was a teacher in the MTC, I remember the MTC President, Ed J. Pinegar, telling the missionaries several times that they had to divulge what was going on with their fellow missionaries so that their leaders could receive inspiration to help them. He coined the phrase “there’s no inspiration without information.”
I think the LDS counsel on how to gain a testimony and the admonition in Moroni 10:4 need to be coupled with this wise advice. We need to consider all the information before we can ever hope to receive inspiration. In other words, the searching and pondering need to come before the praying.
While I fully admit that I previously held strong positive feelings and beliefs with regard to the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, I now feel that that “inspiration” was based on partial and misleading information. This is information that is purposefully kept from the public by those who have the most to gain by hiding it – the leaders of the church. Dallin H. Oaks said at a conference for church educators,
“Balance is telling both sides. This is not the mission of the official church literature or avowedly anti-Mormon literature. Neither has any responsibility to present both sides.” (Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy; Extensions of Power, in appendix five)
I think it’s clear that the Mormon Church’s mission is not to uphold the truth. As mentioned, both sides publish propaganda so shouldn’t it be left to the individual to search both sides of an argument in order to search, ponder and pray? The testimony gained from false information is a false testimony.
Nevertheless, regardless of what the church has tried to hide, I am still left with the impressions and personal feelings regarding the church that led me to be a faithful believer for 38 – 39 years. What should I do with those? The church tells me that they are a personal witness from God that the Church is true. If that is the case, then I think it’s only fair to examine what that means.
First, if my feelings are a valid indicator of the truth, then others in different belief systems would not have the same feelings that I have had. They have to be exclusive to members of the LDS church or they at least have to be more powerful than the feelings that followers of other faiths have. Second, if these feelings testify of truth, they would not be present when something is untrue or false.
I read a book entitled “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James, which does a convincing job of describing religious experiences, and the phenomena that have fostered the hundreds of religions we have on the earth today. I don’t know why I found it so surprising but there are hoards of people who describe religious experiences in the same way the LDS do…”a still small voice,” “a burning in the bosom,” ”peace, love and forgiveness.”
In talking with others, I find it fairly easy to conclude that the witness of the spirit is not an exclusively LDS phenomenon nor is it any less powerful in other faiths. If it testifies of the truth, then the truth is far more expansive than LDS doctrine would allow.
Conversations with believers of other faiths lead me to the same conclusion. Either God gives this feeling and witness to many more people than the LDS church would have me believe or all those people really don’t feel what they say they do. Isn’t that an arrogant assumption? My ward gospel doctrine teacher once asked the class if it was arrogant to claim a witness greater than the one claimed by others. Of course, the overwhelming response was “definitely not!”
I wanted to respond to the contrary but it’s not an atmosphere where honest inquiry and questioning could take place. I would have just been labeled as a troublemaker. In any case, it IS arrogant to believe that your feelings are more powerful or more significant than the same feelings that are described by billions of other children of God on this earth. There’s absolutely no foundation to claim otherwise.
The difference is how those feelings are interpreted. The LDS church taught me that they are evidence of truth. I believed it. I don’t believe it any longer. I don’t think it diminishes my or anyone’s spiritual experience to admit that others have these feelings too and they are special and wonderful – part of being human, but that they don’t mean something is true. Galatians 5:22-23 describes the significance and meaning of the spirit as:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
I think a child probably feels the spirit of joy and love greatest around Christmas time with stories and anticipation of Santa Clause. Yet, those feelings in no way indicate the truthfulness of a man in a red suit.
I once brought a close non-member friend of mine to a fireside in the downtown San Diego Convention Center. The big draw was Paul H. Dunn, a well-known LDS General Authority. I felt the spirit as he talked of his war experiences and professional baseball career and I think my friend did as well. Years later it was revealed that Elder Dunn lied profusely during his entire career as a speaker and well-known LDS leader. How could I have felt the spirit when the stories he told were lies?
I think the standard LDS answer would be that the spirit was witnessing the truth of the principles he taught rather than the truth of each individual story. If I buy that explanation, I would also be able to say that the spirit witnesses at Christmastime that love, giving and generosity are of God. Doesn’t that then allow me to further say that the witness of the spirit that I feel when reading the Book of Mormon testifies that some of the principles taught within are good and not necessarily that the book itself it true?
I recall a personal event that gives me deep insight into the workings of the Spirit…
I was a “zone coordinator” and teacher at the MTC in the late 80’s. As zone coordinators, we basically managed 15-25 teachers and we were automatically the second counselor in an MTC Branch.
One time, at a zone coordinator’s meeting, we were asked to practice giving the new first discussion. We all sat in a circle and our director would point to one of us whereupon that person would begin reciting the discussion until the director pointed to someone else. Everyone but me spoke the same language, Spanish. My target language, Portuguese is similar enough to theirs – in the same language family, but I could understand them better than they could understand me.
He pointed to me precisely at the beginning of the First Vision Story “I saw a pillar of light…” or “Vi uma coluna de luz…”
I poured it on. I knew I was acting the whole thing as if I were emotionally touched by the story. And why not, I was onstage right? It’s a natural instinct. But it was a total act.
Don’t get me wrong, I believed it at the time but I knew I was being less than genuine to get a reaction or to impress. I figured if the church could hire non LDS actors for their “spiritual” videos like “Together Forever” then I could, as a member, do even better.
Afterwards, our director went on and on about how strong the spirit was while I was speaking even though they couldn’t understand every word.
And THAT my friends is how the spirit works. It’s an act. Sometimes it’s fake but even when it’s genuine it’s an emotional reaction to something nonetheless. How could it possibly signal truth?
I think this quote from Edwin Way Teale says it well:
“It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.” – Edwin Way Teale (1889-1980), Circle Of The Seasons, 1953
I find it much more rewarding now to see the range of human emotions God gave us and to recognize that we all experience them. Me, my Catholic, Protestant and Muslim acquaintances all feel them and they’re special and good but they don’t testify of the truth. They’re a gift to ALL MANKIND.
How else could we explain individuals such as Mozart, Rembrandt, Plato, Mohammed, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Edison and others who it could be said were inspired by the spirit of God but were some of the most morally depraved individuals on the earth? It clearly doesn’t only come to those who are “worthy” as the LDS church teaches. Heck if that were true, Joseph Smith would definitely NOT qualify to be close to the spirit.
Lastly, I know I’ll be censured for allowing “so called evidence” to pollute my testimony, but isn’t basing one’s testimony on the witness of the spirit still basing it upon evidence? How is a conclusion based on human feelings supposedly sent from the creator any more worthy evidence than actual physical evidence such as DNA, biology and other natural principles that the creator formed?