When I started A Mormon in the Cheap Seats, I decided I’d write fifty posts. Here are my last three posts—48, 49 and 50.
Part I: What’s Real?
I used to be one of those black-and-white guys. I sometimes wonder, if given the opportunity, whether my 40-year-old self could talk any sense into my 19-year-old self. I don’t know the answer to that.
I empathize with folks that can confidently draw two boxes on the chalk board and tell a Sunday School class that it’s either one or the other. . . either yes or no, the church is “true” or it’s a fraud. Mormons aren’t the only ones that buy into these kinds of false dilemmas. C. S. Lewis’s Trilemma—Jesus is Lunatic, Liar, or Lord—is another well-known example. Notwithstanding, there are times when these kinds of logical errors drive me crazy, mostly because I don’t what to do with the well-intentioned folks who perpetuate them (ignore them? pat them on the head and wish them luck? argue with them?).
More than a year ago, in one of my first posts, I wrote about testimony Sunday. I described the process of assigning meaning to spiritual experiences. For Mormons, this process has been reduced to a formula. If you want spiritual experiences, then select an activity from this list: pray, study, ponder, sing, do good deeds, fast, participate in religious ritual, listen to church leaders, etc. Wondering what qualifies as a spiritual experience? We’ve got another list: feelings of enlightenment, peace, compassion, love, physical sensations, such as a burning in the chest, tingling sensations and tremors, and more subtle experiences, such as peace of mind, or a sense of “rightness” or “correctness. For those that have grown up in the church, we’re conditioned from birth, in ways both explicit and subtle, to interpret these experiences in specific ways. We’re told what these experiences mean, and most of us stick to the script we’re given.
I’m fascinated by how invisible the process is to most of us. We’re like fish who can’t conceptualize the water we swim in. It’s surprisingly hard for us to get outside of it so that we can see it. It’s our Mormon epistemology. Few of us seem to care that Moroni’s promise is part of the book to which it is intended to be applied. Few of us ever ask how we test the test?
Although it should be obvious that we shouldn’t treat spiritual experiences like a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to universal truth, that is exactly what our epistemology teaches us to do. For those who choose to take a step back and examine our epistemology objectively, its flaws become apparent. Its decision logic is circular (see this post for a flow diagram). Its universality is undermined by the fact that millions of people in thousands of different religions have similar spiritual experiences that bind them in intimate ways to their own faith communities. Its reliability is rebutted by the fact many Mormons, if they’re sufficiently open and receptive, discover the same spiritual experiences—experiences that they may have previously interpreted as evidence of the church’s “truthfulness”—in other practices and religious contexts, such as meditation, yoga, charity work, and other faith communities. Several of my early posts deal with this process, including this one questioning the wisdom of using spiritual experiences to build “towers of religious certainty,” this one on the underlying assumption of spiritual coherence and universality, and this one defending Mormon heterodoxy.
When hauled out into the light, our epistemology doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But here’s the catch. For most Mormons, the means aren’t as important as the ends, and for those of us in the cheap seats trying to figure things out, debating the validity of the process used by others to test the truth claims of the church misses the point. Asking whether or not the church is true—or asking how others answer that question, doesn’t get us anywhere. What we should be asking, I think, is this: What is it about the church that’s real?
On any given Sunday, the smiles, the handshakes, and the hugs are real. So are the feelings of fellowship and community. On fast and testimony Sundays, the professions of certainty are real. So is the sense of connection and shared purpose. This is what keeps church members coming back. When someone says “I know that the church is true,” what they often mean is that they know the church is “real.” It’s real because they can feel it. In a good fast and testimony meeting, the sense of spiritual communion is tangible. This shared experience is often what we acknowledge when we offer public thanks for “the Spirit that has been here with us today.” If it’s been a while, experiencing it can feel like coming home.
“True” and “real” are two different things. They operate on two different axes. Imagine a guy at a ballpark. It’s a beautiful day, and he’s enjoying a hot dog and a coke. Now imagine that there’s a guy next to him that wants to talk about how his hotdog was made. He wants to discuss the steps involved in processing the meat and debate whether plant workers are paid enough. He’s concerned about product quality, overtime pay, worker safety issues, and environmental impact, among other things. Although his concerns may be valid, the first guy may not be interested. His hot dog tastes good. Not only are these other issues unnecessary, but being aware of them may make his hot dog less enjoyable. And besides, he just wants to be left alone to watch the game.
For those of us in the cheap seats, the next time we feel the urge to bring up Fanny Alger, different versions of the First Vision, polyandry, the Kinderhook plates, the Book of Abraham, blacks and priesthood, women’s issues, DNA and the American Indians, logical errors, epistemological concerns, City Creek Mall, or other similar issues, we should think about the guy in the ballpark. Do we really want to be that annoying guy next to him that won’t let him eat his hot dog and enjoy the game in peace?
Stay tuned for Part II, Deconstructing John Dehlin, and Part III, My Thoughts on Religion.
[Prior MCS Post: A Faith Like Mine]