Belief and Knowledge

 

In the LDS Church, a belief or set of beliefs is commonly referred to as a "testimony".  A Testimony, according to the Topical Guide on LDS.org is "a spiritual witness given by the Holy Ghost. The foundation of a testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves His children; that Jesus Christ lives, that He is the Son of God, and that He carried out the infinite Atonement; that Joseph Smith is the prophet of God who was called to restore the gospel; that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior's true Church on the earth; and that the Church is led by a living prophet today. With this foundation, a testimony grows to include all principles of the gospel." (see more here).

 

For example, one might say they “know God lives”, they “know Jesus is the Christ”, or they “know the Church is true”. 

 

Usually the word “know” is preferred over “believe” to indicate strength of conviction, sometimes in relation to other aspects of doctrine or belief that may not be so clear.

 

Sometimes testimonies are criticized (usually by disaffected members) as rote or formulaic, a charge which is judgmental and cynical at best.  Words that may be similar represent unique underpinning  qualities, perceptions, experiences and understandings.  If the same Sacrament meeting shorthand is used, it is no indication that the expression is without foundation or any less sincere.

 

Critics are often former LDS member who no longer believe in God.  They typically consider any previous convictions  they may have held or spiritual witnesses they may have received irrelevant and meaningless. 

 

D. Jeff Burton identifies three kinds or aspects of testimony; the "feeling based" testimony, the "manifestation based" testimony and the "life tested" testimony.   His articles are instructive.  He concludes that the "life tested" testimony is the "surest way of coming to know that any propositional claim is correct or right."  This is consistent with the Saviors promise " If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself".

 

Burton is correct, however the more time invested in a belief system, the more likely a person will be to defend their investment of life energy.   This is human nature.

 

Testimony is not a matter of either feelings, or a manifestation or life experience.  A testimony is dynamic combination of all the mentioned elements in addition to reason and learning.

 

The Conundrum

 

The real conundrum to the "life experience" aspect of testimony is the fact that it is humanly impossible to adequately investigate and develop life experience in each of the extant belief systems.  We can't test them all by life experience.

 

J.B.S. Haldane, when asked what his work in evolutionary biology taught him about the Creator is said to have responded, “He has an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

 

There are a lot of beetle species. God created nature and let nature take its course.   Some of the more fascinating aspects of biological science are the things that don’t work quite like some people think they should. Atavisms, interbreeding species, mutations and other seemingly irregular phenomena are all aspects of a greater plan in which imperfection is deliberate.

 

Similarly, religion is deliberately diverse, with relatively few dispensations of truth revealed to tiny groups of designated recipients who have almost immediately distorted, disfigured or disregarded it, often with the most sincere of intentions.

 

In His wisdom, God intends that His children wander around in darkness, frequently stubbing their toes, banging their heads and worse.

 

Only a tiny fraction of humanity have lived in a time and place providing access to Christianity of any kind, and a tinier fraction still have lived in a time and place when the authority of the priesthood was available to administer saving ordinances.

 

The explanation for this seemingly chaotic condition of religious faith is explained by the LDS doctrine of pre-mortal existence where our agency to choose was assured.  Watch this video.

 

Darkness and confusion is part of the plan we once voted for.  The Saviors plan was to insure a life that was generally hard, unfair, ambiguous and dangerous. Why should we now expect something different?  We agreed to the plan because we understood all factors in the equation.  It was frightening but, as a result of the Savior’s atonement, will prove absolutely fair.

 

While God remains hidden to many, He is also quite willing to reveal himself in limited ways to others.  As the French Mathematician and Theologian Blaise Pascal taught:

 

“Instead of complaining that God had hidden Himself, you will give Him thanks for not having revealed so much of Himself; and you will also give Him thanks for not having revealed Himself to haughty sages, unworthy to know so holy a God. __Two kinds of persons know Him: those who have a humble heart, and who love lowliness, whatever kind of intellect they may have, high or low; and those who have sufficient understanding to see the truth, whatever opposition they may have to it.”

 

                                                                                                       Blaise Pascal, Pensees 288

 

Testimonies come only to those who have a humble heart, irrespective of intellectual attainment.  It is the tie that binds us to Jesus Christ as we seek to walk with him through our lives and return with Him to our Heavenly Father.  Critics contend that testimonies are false feelings that are generated as the result of brainwashing techniques brutally applied by LDS missionaries and abusive parents.

 

One LDS member with a Ph.D in Psychology and postdoctrinal study in Developmental Psychology at Harvard, should have recognized the brainwashing techniques he has been subject to his entire life.  Instead he said:

 

 "Just as our eyes and ears can be saturated in physical sights and sounds, so our souls can be immersed in the pure intelligence of the Spirit. The first, for the most part, teach us of the things of the world; the second, the things of eternity. The confirmation of the Spirit is also far more certain than the testimony of the physical senses. It is surprising—but I have discovered it to be true—that we can know eternal things through the Spirit better than we know mortal things through the physical senses.

 

It is in this way that I know that we do indeed have a Father in Heaven, that we have a Savior who is Jesus Christ, that the fullness of the gospel was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that the Lord directs His Church through living prophets.

 

These are the core truths of the gospel and I know of their reality better, literally, than I know anything else—more certainly, for example, than I know that I am sitting in a chair penning these words on a wintry Sunday morning." - Dr. Duane Boyce - read more here

 

Dr. C. Randall Paul, a Social Psychologist noted that he was "witness to many spiritual experiences—some of which include communications with unseen influences that I presume to be invisible immortal humanlike beings who want to help or hinder us from achieving our collective goal to creatively grow together in ways that expand our love and joy. I pray frequently by speaking out loud or in my mind to a person I trust to be my Heavenly Father, presuming that he has adequate capacity and concern to hear and respond by sending ideas and feelings to me that I can use to engage the challenges and enjoyments of life beyond my unaided ability. I believe witnesses who have returned from death to tell us about another social world to come, where we live, work, and play as persons in another sphere. I believe that we humans never cease to exist as persons in some continuous historical form (unseen before and after death to most human instruments), and that what matters most to us is experiencing the freely given love and collaboration of other everlasting persons."  (Dr. C. Randall Paul - read more here)

 

 

 

Institutional Relationship with God

 

Heavenly Father appreciates the sincere efforts of all of his children to comprehend and apprehend Him, regardless of whether they are Sufi or Shinshukyo.  He hears and appreciates all sincere prayers, whether it involves burning incense or sounding a gong.  He is more concerned with the love in our hearts than whether we wear a white shirt and tie or a saffron robe.  At the same time, God has covenantal relationships with institutions at various times in history, the Family of Abraham, the People of Moses, the primitive Christian Church, and others.  These relationships included the bestowal of authority to act in His name. Latter-day Saints believe that authority now resides in the LDS Church.

 

While this statement has significant meaning for Latter-day Saints, there are also significant things that it does not mean:

 

1. It does not mean that God loves anyone any less than he loves Mormons.

 

2. It does not mean Mormons are better.

 

3. It does not mean Mormons will be the only ones “saved”.

 

4. It does not mean Mormons are immune from fault and failure.

 

 

 

Personal Relationship with God

 

A friend recently commented, “people would rather google an answer than pray about it”.

 

To have a personal relationship with God we (most of us) must:

 

1. Believe in our ability to have a relationship with Heavenly Father through prayer

 

2. Recognize if and how he answers us and

 

3. Consider and interpret answers.

 

On a psychological level, prayer helps us to organize thoughts, prioritize concerns and create an open meditative frame of mind receptive to deeper levels of cognition and the influence of God.

 

On a spiritual level, prayer maintains a link with a loving Father.

 

Love and humility are attitudes conducive to communication with Heavenly Father.  Consistency in these attitudes is important because answers to prayer are often serendipitous, and not dependant on folded arms, closed eyes or bended knee.

 

In fact, prayer is best considered an attitude as well as an action. It is a process of discovering and perpetuating our relationship with God.

 

Can truth be discovered through prayer?  Sometimes.  The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni made it very clear that answers to prayer are conditional upon sincerity, intent and faith in Christ:

 

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would aask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.  And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

Moroni never said one would know the truth, only that one may know it, and that such knowledge is given by the Holy Ghost.

 

Feelings

 

In the LDS Church we frequently hear that the good and positive feelings we experience are manifestations of the Holy Ghost and that such feelings are confirmations of truth.

 

While that may be true in many cases, feelings are highly subjective, not the only means of discerning truth. But they can be the rudiments of testimony.

 

People of all faiths, and people entirely without faith claim feelings that verify their worldviews.  Perhaps even atheists receive a little shot of dopamine when they consider the stark elegance of their carefully vacuumed cosmology.

 

We are emotional beings and when our belief system is verified, it is natural to attribute evocation of emotion to a divine source.

 

The inadequacy of "feelings" as verification of a truth claim is a favorite subject of church critics.  Their criticism is not entirely without basis but at the same time, seem shortsighted and misleading.  One very acerbic exposition by a disaffected church member listed many points that are valid, but the presentation is cynical, derisive, and not very helpful to those hoping to understand what testimony is and the role of feelings in its development ( my response is still in preperation).

 

When we hear faith promoting stories, we feel touched.  Our minds react positively and neurotransmitters are released.  We might become emotional. We can experience spiritual feelings or become emotionally moved by works we know are complete fiction.

 

Whether the Holy Ghost stimulates ones median forebrain bundle, or neurotransmitters are released in response to more temporal stimulation, the feeling will be the same.  Certainly the brain can initiate a feeling as genuine as one mediated by the Holy Ghost.

 

Feeling the Holy Spirit is highly subjective.   One might feel good about a teaching because they already believe it or it fits with current belief and the feeling they experience provides cognitive confirmation.    It should not be construed as the ratification of the Holy Ghost.

 

Small promptings and feelings function to keep us close to Heavenly Father and not as the ultimate “truth detector”.  They function more as a behavior monitor than a theological guide.

 

Latter-day Saints sometimes comment that they felt the Holy Ghost “leave the room” when comments run contrary to their preconceived ideas. We don’t know if the Holy Spirit can leave a room, if it can leave vacuums in space, especially when people worthy of companionship remain in the room.  It is not surprising that many mistake cognitive dissonance for withdrawal of the Spirit, since both can be characterized as a “stupor of thought” (D&C 9:9).

 

Some members of the Church, who have received the Gift of the Holy Ghost, think that all their decisions are divinely affirmed, that all their beliefs are truth and that whatever they feel is a “prompting of the Spirit”. 

 

It would appear that for almost all of Heavenly Father’ children, the walk home is done in the dimmest of light.  Why then should members of the church expect one ordinance, as meaningful as it may be, to suddenly illuminate everything?

When answers are not immediate, or perceived prompting don’t pan out, faith can challenged.

 

So how do we know if our feelings are generated by God or are simply our own invention? We don’t, we can’t, and we are not supposed to be able to. 

 

There are at least two reasons why this must be:

 

1.     Agency

 

2.     Liability

 

There must always be room for doubt and room for faith.  God will not compromise our right to agency.  He also understands our weakness and limitations and will respond to our prayers in a way that will limit our liability for disobedience to His direction.

 

So what good are spiritual feelings?  The scriptures provide some insight:

 

And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good–yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, and to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy. (Doctrine and Covenants 11:12-13)

 

Eventually, with prayer and practice, we can acquire a sense of recognition for spiritual prompting that becomes a basis for belief and action.  Dr. Richard Bushman, an LDS historian, put it this way:

 

“Mormon theology instills a belief in heavenly guidance. Mormons take very seriously scriptures about “the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father” (John 16:26). We believe that anyone who will open his or her mind and heart can hear the voice of the spirit and learn from it. Mormons teach their little children to “listen to the Spirit.” In all our church callings, in making life decisions, in seeking to comprehend, in choosing good over evil, we listen to that inner voice. Experienced Mormons are almost always listening with a “third ear” for promptings about how best to proceed. Mormon theology generously extends this good spirit to people everywhere—to the whole world, for that matter. The spirit of Christ, we believe, bathes all of his creation and all who will pause to listen can receive its inspiration for any good cause—for art, for invention, for good works, for peace-making, for scholarly inquiry, for just management of a family or a corporation. The spirit of Christ—his voice—can be heard by all who will listen. Again from personal experience, I find this doctrine works and I recommend it to everyone. Creative and good people act under this principle anyway, as their accounts amply testify, but this doctrine recommends that quite ordinary people seek the same intuitive guidance for their lives.” http://mormonscholarstestify.org/396/richard-lyman-bushman

 

Some final points:

 

1.     Listening to the Spirit is not without limitations, but it is often all we have to go by.

 

2.     We have to be prepared to re-assess our assumptions from time to time.

 

3.     We grow line upon line and precept upon precept, and feel our way through the darkness, trusting in Heavenly Father’s plan. 

 

4.     At the same time, fascinating flashes of light occasionally occur that compel us to reach further into the darkness.

 

Manifestations and Miracles

 

Skeptics claim that all supposed manifestations and miracles are contrived despite the sincerity of the claimant. Certainly, not all are genuine. But are all of them false?

 

Again, there must always be room for doubt and room for faith.  God will not compromise our right to agency.

 

Latter-day Saints generally enjoy stories involving confirmatory manifestations and miracles that fit within certain expectations, but reject claims that do not.   There is good reason for this skeptical application of faith; not all manifestations and miracles are from God.  Some are mere coincidence, and some are from Satan.

 

For example, a young lady who was contemplating joining the church told of how she was hesitant to be baptized, since she had already received baptism in another faith.  The night before her scheduled baptism, she prayed about the problem but received no answer.  During the night however, she awoke, and directly opened her Bible to a scripture that demonstrated to her satisfaction the necessity of re-baptism (Acts 19:1-6).    She was baptized the next day.

 

Another gentleman, who was being taught by LDS missionaries, said that he had been to a casino and asked God to show him the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon by causing him to win at a certain game with long odds.  The man won his bet, and announced that he now knew that the Book of Mormon was true.   He was not baptized.

 

Latter-day Saints would be inclined to judge the veracity of the different manifestations by the method that produced the manifestation and the fruits that resulted from them.

 

If a manifestation or miracle draws people into more meaningful relationship with Heavenly Father, serves to strengthen their faith or preserves and sustains them through a difficult period, its source is likely celestial, regardless of their religion.

 

Further exploration into this interesting topic may be found here:

 

Synthesis

 

After all this, the question remains of how one is to know whether or not a feeling, vision, revelation or any other mental experience we call "spiritual" is from God, Satan, or Self?

 

In D &C 11: 12-13 the Lord said: 

   12  And now, verily, verily, I say unto thee, put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good—yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit.

  13 Verily, verily, I say unto you, I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy;

 

Does a prompting lead one to a physically and spiritually positive outcome for you or others? 

 

Here is a link to a talk by Elder Packer that may help illuminate the process of revelation.

 

Read Moroni Chapter 7, paying particular attention to verses 6-26.

 

Heavenly Father loves us more than we can know.  He wants what is best for us, and he wants us to grow through experiencing trials and making correct decisions.  We may not always know the source of our impressions, but if we follow the prescribed tests, our assurance is strengthened.     If we inspire ourselves to do good, is that any different from God inspiring us to do good?  The outcome should be the same. 

 

 

Ron Hellings, a theoretical physicist and member of the LDS Church describes the “good science” that is the active part of discovering truth:

 

“I have heard people say that science and religion are two paths to truth. I do not believe that. There is only one path to truth, and to me it seems closer to science than it is to what passes for religion in most people. But it is not the scientific method. The only people I know who care about the scientific method are philosophers. Scientists don’t worry about it. What scientists do is what Karl Popper said in his cute definition of science: “Science is doing your damnedest with your mind – no holds barred.” The problem with science is not the process, but the artificial limits that most scientists put on the evidence they will accept. Evidence, they say, must be objective. This is a reasonable limitation, in a way, because the goal of science is not just to find truth, but also to communicate it. And you can only communicate things that others will understand through your common experience. But many scientists use this limitation on what they can communicate to others as the criterion for what they will accept for themselves. They will not seek a revelation because it would be a subjective evidence. So what? What a brain-numbing, truth-avoiding, closed-minded attitude this is! This is not doing your damnedest with your mind, no holds barred; it is setting up artificial rules that exclude a wealth of evidence and knowledge. This is bad science.

 

What is good science is the process described by Alma to the poor among the Zoramites:

 

27. But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

 

28. Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. [Alma 32: 27-28]

 

This is good science. It proposes an experiment and predicts the outcome. I will grant that the conditions (casting out by unbelief, resisting the Spirit) must be subjectively evaluated, as must the outcome. So, again, my experience cannot substitute for anyone else’s. But the testimony I bear is that it works. God is there. He will honor his prophets’ words. I promise.” Read more from Dr. Hellings  here