5. Emotionality as Evidence
Mormons are taught to base their beliefs in the church on a spiritual witness rather than facts. A testimony is considered the most important possession a member may have:
"I would like to say to you, that is the strength of this cause, the individual testimony that lies in the hearts of the people. The strength of this church is not in its buildings, in its chapels, in its offices, in its schools; it is not in its programs or its publications. They are important, but they are only a means to an end, and that the end is the building of the testimony - a conviction that will weather every storm and stand up to every crisis in the hearts and lives of the membership." (Gordon B. Hinckley, Area Conference Report, August 1971, Manchester, England, pp. 160-161. As quoted in Testimony, pp. 8-9)
So how do Mormons gain a testimony? Brigham Young said that Joseph Smith appeared to him in a dream and discussed how one can recognize the Spirit:
"They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits; it will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts; and their whole desire will be to do good." (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, February 23, 1847; as quoted by Marion G. Romney, in Conference Report, April 1944, pp. 140-141)
Thus, Mormons believe that truth can be known through one's emotions and desires. They are encouraged by church leaders to reject any evidence which conflicts with this spiritual witness of truth. As taught by Apostle Thomas S. Monson:
"Remember that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind at the same time, for one will dispel the other . . . Should doubt knock at your doorway, just say to those skeptical, disturbing, rebellious thoughts: 'I propose to stay with my faith, with the faith of my people. I know that happiness and contentment are there, and I forbid you, agnostic, doubting thoughts to destroy the house of my faith. I acknowledge that I do not understand the processes of creation, but I accept the fact of it. I grant that I cannot explain the miracles of the Bible, and I do not attempt to do so, but I accept God's word. I wasn't with Joseph, but I believe him. My faith did not come to me through science, and I will not permit so-called science to destroy it." (Thomas S. Monson, "The Lighthouse of the Lord," New Era, February 2001, p. 4)
While faith certainly plays a role in the spiritual life, should it be allowed to displace observable facts? Must one surrender objectivity whenever it comes into conflict with spiritual beliefs? How can one know whether spiritual experiences are not simply emotional reactions? What about Mormon priesthood blessings where the individual pronounces what he believes to be the Lord's will, only to have the opposite occur? Or disciplinary councils where men, equal in righteousness and sincerity, receive conflicting spiritual promptings about the appropriate course of action? As discussed by William Gardiner:
"Mormons will at this point inject that a certain kind of feeling experience supercedes any level of external evidence because the feeling experience is actually a member of the godhead telling them a truth. This seems viable if one could know that the feeling state they're having is actually the Holy Ghost telling them something. How would they know this feeling state is the Holy Ghost? And how would they know what the meaning of the feeling state is? Because someone in the organization has told them what it is. So, Catholics have their truths confirmed by this feeling experience, as do Born-again Fundamentalists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons . . . How reliable could this be as an ultimate source of truth?"
But my feeling state is better than your feeling state.
"Confounding the ability of church members to honestly look at such a question is the indoctrination process that begins in early "programming." Throughout the Mormon experience comes the indoctrination of knowing. "I know the church is true" programming and a discouragement of questioning the truth of Mormon scriptures and leaders strongly inhibits the process of an honest and ongoing search for truth. Mormons are typically unable to see this in themselves. The ability to objectively see this in their experience runs contradictory to the programming of knowing. But if we were to discuss this in the context of another religion--for example The Jehovah's Witnesses, then Mormons can clearly see the error in someone believing they know the truth and then shutting off the process of ongoing critical examination and continued searching. Such individuals are dismissed by Mormons as being closed-minded--all the while missing that very quality in themselves.
Church members are effectively told that they should never doubt or question. Had Joseph Smith followed this admonition, he would have never inquired as to the truth of the churches of his day. Growth and the emergence of continued spiritual enlightenment is a product of continual doubting, searching and questioning. As Erich Fromm stated:
"The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers."
The religious experience has been well-addressed in psychology. For example, in William James' classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience he explores the subject in depth. Here he talks about how a spiritual experience can have a convincing aspect and be viewed as an independent source of truth:
"I spoke of the convincingness of these feelings of reality, and I must dwell a moment longer on that point. They are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are. One may indeed be entirely without them; probably more than one of you here present is without them in any marked degree; but if you do have them, and have them at all strongly, the probability is that you cannot help regarding them as genuine perceptions of truth, as revelations of a kind of reality which no adverse argument, however unanswerable by you in words, can expel from your belief . . .
As an interesting side note, William James reviews various leading religious figures in his book, concluding with Joseph Smith:
"In none of these cases is the revelation distinctly motor. In the case of Joseph Smith (who had prophetic revelations innumerable in addition to the revealed translation of the gold plates which resulted in the Book of Mormon), although there may have been a motor element, the inspiration seems to have been predominantly sensorial. He began his translation by the aid of the 'peepstones' which he found, or thought or said that he found, with the gold plates,- apparently a case of 'crystal gazing.' For some of the other revelations he used the peep-stones, but seems generally to have asked the Lord for more direct instruction.*
Steve Lowther, a former LDS apologist, described his experience with religious emotions in this way:
"In my own awakening from apologist to critic, one of the epiphanies I had was about trusting the "Whisperings of the Spirit". Missionaries encourage investigators to employ this technique to find out the truth.
I will conclude with this quote from Edwin Way Teale:
"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
It is all about testimony, as President Spencer W. Kimball once said:
"I mention this so you do not think that testimony bearing is some little thing that is incidental to the mission only. This is the church program. It is powerful and mighty. Can you see how important the testimony is? It is the lifeblood of the organization of the Church." (Spencer W. Kimball, Unpublished address, Church Historical Department, Jan. 15, 1962, Berlin, Germany, p. 3. As quoted in Testimony, p. 145)