I know I said I was probably going to write about the relationship between faith and activity and practice rather than belief within Mormonism, but I’ve had other thoughts that I feel are more immediately relevant. And it’s obviously later than I usually post, but hey, what can you do? Anyway, I’m interested in how we use the Spirit and spiritual experiences as a way of replicating hegemony within Mormonism. At least that sparked some of these thoughts and shaped some of how they’ve come out.
As we were talking in Sunday School about receiving revelation I was thinking about how we have a pretty narrow set of acceptable options. Specifically if we look at praying to know if the Book of Mormon is true. Within Mormonism, the only acceptable answer is yes. There are safeguards built into the structure for when someone doesn’t receive a yes that maintain the underlying belief of the community in the Book of Mormon. Either the individual lacks faith or some real intent, the timing isn’t right for God to answer right now, or an answer was given, but the individual failed to receive it. One way to think of hegemony is that it’s composed of belief/ideology plus action plus reciprocal confirmation. To expand briefly on that, there’s a belief that is then acted on (belief in receiving revelation and some sense of belief in The Book of Mormon for this example followed by a prayer to seek that revelation), which is followed by the reciprocal confirmation (this is where because of the strength of the belief/ideology whatever follows the action is interpreted as a confirmation of that belief—hence the varied possible outcomes that all affirm the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon).
This does not mean that the Book of Mormon isn’t true. Truth can be reproduced by hegemonic systems. I believe in the Book of Mormon and have had spiritual experiences related to it. However, awareness of this does suggest for me that I would believe it is true even if it wasn’t. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to eliminate hegemonic systems. That’s not the point. Yet, I think awareness of them does complicate our relationship to them and can help us contest aspects of those systems.
But now we’re straying a bit from where I wanted to go (though there are lots of interesting and important questions and discussions to be had about this, so I might come back to it in the future). Revelation and the Book of Mormon is a fairly simple case study. Things get far messier when we look at other scenarios with more open-ended and potentially lower-stakes questions. Something like what school should I go to, what should I major in, what should I do for my career, who should I marry, etc.
It strikes me that there are a number of possible outcomes to these questions, assuming that the question was framed in a yes-no fashion (in linguistics known as a polar question apparently. Assuming that Google and Wikipedia did not just mislead me).
- Receive an answer.
- Don’t receive an answer.
- God answered, but you missed it.
There’s some messiness there, but with just those possibilities, things are decently straightforward. I think the messiness really comes when you dive into some of the possibilities within the second category (some of which apply to the third potentially), so let’s break it down:
- You were somehow unworthy to receive the revelation.
- It’s not the right time for that revelation.
- It’s unimportant.
- Both options are equally right or wrong.
- There is no God.
I don’t believe the 5th, but it would be dishonest to not include that as an explanation for not receiving an answer, since the other options all rely on the assumption that there is a God and that said God answers prayers. I think parsing out this is important because the path forward seems to vary pretty radically from scenario to scenario.
If I did not receive revelation because I was somehow unworthy to receive it, I would need to identify the origin of that unworthiness, repent and ask again. However, if it’s simply not the right time, no amount of repenting is going to result in revelation. So how do we distinguish between these varied possibilities? Honestly? I have no idea. Sorry if you came here hoping for some solid, lovely, concrete answers. I think we need to get some like spirit mood rings that change colors depending on what the nuances of the response are. (Because what’s better than some folk-magic-y priestcraft?)
I feel that answers can come though that process, but that it is quite messy and I find myself re-interpreting spiritual experiences with some frequency because the interpretation that I initially had seems to be unworkable given my current circumstances or beliefs. I don’t really know what qualifies as important in the eyes of God (some people tend to be pretty dismissive of educational or vocational choices, but I think those are fairly significant decisions since they’ll dictate in large part the lifestyle and environment that you find yourself in for significant periods of time and that strikes me as something that God would care about. Not that I believe in a one-true job that God wants me to do while I’m kicking around Earth, but there seems to be possible insight that He/She/They could offer me that’d be useful in making such determinations).
So, where are we? I think that spiritual experiences are real, while helping to confirm beliefs that we generally already hold to some degree. Does that mean that God has to work to shift those beliefs prior to the spiritual experience for it to be effective? I don’t know. My conception of the spirit and how it works is such that I think we frequently misinterpret (or perhaps extra-interpret—adding layers of meaning that weren’t present) it, so shifting interpretations seem to me an inherent part of the process.
Awareness of the messiness strikes me as an important step in moving forward. If I’m unaware of the dangers and complications I probably cannot address them, but if I am aware, at least I can cautiously proceed with extra humility and some doubt-tinged belief. Well, that’s what I try to do anyway.