I am a cultural Mormon whose spiritual experiences have always been and remain unscripted.
As a young (19-year-old) Mormon missionary who was then and has always remained serious about what it means to live a spiritual life, I experienced what Mormons in general refer to as that first moment of testimony when I knew … I really knew … what was truth and what was not.
My life was ever changed from that moment. From that moment to this moment I have tried always to live by the Spirit as defined by my own experience in direct application of the Moroni Promises well-known to Mormons. I have always acknowledged and made a response to (sometimes in accordance with and very infrequently out of harmony with with) the promptings of the Spirit.
It seems like many who know me now would find my paragraph above as extremely hard to believe based on my lack of harmony with the religious basis of my culture, no matter that I am a product of the faith and courage of my society and try to reflect both in my life’s decisions to this day.
One of the hard lessons I’ve had to learn in my life is that neither I nor anyone else can control the messages that I or they intentionally or unconsciously declare – verbally or with body language and mannerisms. How my “messages” are received and internalized is not mine to govern, manage or even rework once revealed… nor are anyone else’s.
“What you believe I said is not what I said.
What you believe I meant is not what I meant.
What you believe I believe or I think is not what I believe or think.
I’m always sincere and genuine.
If you don’t perceive my messages exactly as I send them the problem is yours.
There’s nothing wrong with my sending mode.”
I have paid dearly for assuming otherwise in my own life … but once out of the bag … the cat will always quickly multiply itself and the one thing you can’t manage is a herd of cats.
The truly devoted … those whose devotion seems to be defined by a societal mindset as to what constitutes a religious way of life that God approves of and for which God gives blessings … are never justified in putting themselves in the place of God who spoke to Isaiah in Chapter 55:8-9.
Let me paraphrase what to me seems the unconscious thinking and assumptions that are expressed by words and actions of many with whom I am acquainted and with whom I have disagreed about what constitutes the definition of what it means to be religious.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the faithful to those deemed unfaithful.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
On Testimony and Spiritual-Mindedness
Apostle Dallin Oaks :
As faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a distinctive way of looking at life.
We view our experiences in terms of eternity. As we draw farther from worldliness, we feel closer to our Father in Heaven and more able to be guided by his Spirit.
We call this quality of life spirituality … To the faithful, spirituality is a lens through which we view life and a gauge by which we evaluate it.
Such may be true for most believing Mormons, but is it true for all of us?
Must our personal spirituality be approached and experienced as if there were only one way to experience God?
One of the many words used in attempts to describe approaches to religion in general (and Christianity in our particulars as Mormons) is that of fundamentalism. There are millions of religious believers who take a fundamentalist approach to their practice of religion. One can make the case that the following definition, applied in a general way, reflects the predominant way of thinking and perceiving life with a majority of Mormons.
The term usually has a religious connotation indicating unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs, but fundamentalism has come to be applied to a broad tendency among certain groups, mainly, although not exclusively, in religion.
This tendency is most often characterized by a markedly strict literalism as applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining in-group and out-group distinctions,leading to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which it is believed that members have begun to stray.
Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established “fundamentals” and their accepted interpretation within the group is often the result of this tendency.
In addition, non-Mormon fundamentalists tend to hold to biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth of Jesus, substitutionary atonement, the literal resurrection of Christ, and the Second Coming of Christ, among other doctrines. Mormons for the most part and to the extent that the Bible is “translated correctly,” hold scripturally to the same beliefs.
Furthermore, the Church narrative about its history, doctrines and evolution from the 19th-century evangelical fundamentalism prevalent at the time of Joseph Smith on into the 20th-century has included a somewhat inflexible insistence that the narrative is to be taken as literal truth.
From the Church website:
As a young boy in 1820, Joseph Smith wanted to know which church was true. As he searched the Bible for help, he read that he should ask of God. Acting on this counsel, Joseph went into the woods near his home and prayed. Suddenly, a light shone above him and Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him. When Joseph asked which church he should join, the Savior told him to join none of the churches then in existence because they were teaching incorrect doctrines. Through this experience and many others that followed, the Lord chose Joseph to be His prophet and to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church to the earth.
By the church’s own narrative, until Joseph Smith walked into the woods to offer up his prayer, 19th-century America was still in the throes of what we LDS call the Great Apostasy. No revelation had been received and there seemed to be no evidence that might justify the prevalent assumptions that permeated the life and times of young Joseph, his immediate family and the cultural religiousness that dominated the Burnt Out District in 19th-century upstate New York.
What were those assumptions that were so prevalent even before the declared epiphanic visions of young Joseph in the woods?
This is what was in the air, on the table and in the water that most of Christian religious inclination were drinking. It became known as the American Restoration Movement.
Christianity should not be divided, Christ intended the creation of one church.
Creeds divide, but Christians should be able to find agreement by standing on the Bible itself (from which they believe all creeds are but human expansions or constrictions) Ecclesiastical traditions divide, but Christians should be able to find common ground by following the practice (as best as it can be determined) of the early church.
Names of human origin divide, but Christians should be able to find common ground by using biblical names for the church (i.e., “Christian Church”, “Church of God” or “Church of Christ” as opposed to “Methodist” or “Lutheran”, etc.).- Wikipedia
Young Joseph did not invent these notions and assumptions. They were in place before he went to ask God about them. These assumptions were biblical to be sure. They were also driven by the long term Christian assumptions of the theologies created mostly by the Roman Church fathers during the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. These were theological ideas; not verifiable nor otherwise proven absolutes about the reality of the cosmos in spiritual terms:
the virgin birth of Jesus,
a bar of judgement
the literal resurrection of Christ,
and the Second Coming of Christ
the power of God as an authorization to priesthood or practiced in any other form as priestcraft
For most of its history, the LDS Church has faithfully adhered to a narrative that has always included a reverent acceptance of Joseph Smith’s officially and formally recorded accounts. These included the Prophet’s visions, golden plates, revelations and declarations of a restoration of the true church which – by implication – included then a certain one-true-way-and-means of belief and corresponding faithful behavior.
Such was my own experience earlier in life when in my formative years I learned about God from within my faith community. The Dallin Oaks quote above is an authoritative declaration by a living apostle of the more fundamentalist approach – as I have described it – that typifies Mormonism.
For most Latter Day Saints then, personal spirituality in faith and practice seems to look like this:
Obedience + Worthiness = Spirituality which leads to Blessings
Such in fact is a very specific and rigid way of spirituality, of practicing religion in general or being a practicing and believing Christian fundamentalist … and truly … one way of being Mormon.
It does not however have to be the only way.
This fundamentalist approach is called – among other things – religious legalism. Religious legalism seems to be the principal way of living a performance-based religion within a performance-based society. Though not necessarily a negative, but truth be told, such an approach can only be supported by a cosmological belief in God as a monarch. God as a Divine Presider over a kingdom and who makes laws, requires and rewards obedience and in some form or another either withholds blessings or gets punitive with non-conformers.
Among other things Legalism teaches that obedience to law is the preeminent principle of redemption.
Legalism can be thought of as a works-based religion and is reflective of a society choosing one side of the on-going works-versus-faith debate.
Examples of legalistic beliefs include ideas such as
God’s approval of me depends on what I do.
Meeting the expectations of others, especially those in the Church who are in positions of authority, are paramount.
Moral and ethical questions are usually black and white.
Members fall short because they might not have enough faith, or because they haven’t prayed enough.
A sense of spiritual well-being is linked to membership in my church rather than a personal relationship with God.
A belief in one’s church as God’s true church and that most other Christians may be sincere, but are sincerely wrong.
The exterior choices a person makes in what they wear, hairstyle, piercings, tattoos, etc. is a clear indication of that person’s character.
Whether we admit it or not, we all live within the frameworks of our own internal thinking and imagination. These frameworks are the mental constructs by which we view reality in any of its forms. If we believe that life is a dog-eat-dog existence we will live accordingly … aggressive or cowering, selfish, belligerent or any other adopted approaches to dealing with life in which we imagine we must be predators or cautious avoiders in order to survive.
The same is true of our internal vision of a spiritual cosmology. Our lives are living myths of our own creation. Our companion is our personal story, all the stuff inside we use tell us who we are and tell the world the same.
Another way of describing our relationship to our personal mental constructs is that as a reflection of our combined cultural assumptions. Our personal mythical scenario is always on and is always running. Sam Keen has described myth as referring to
“an intricate set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community or culture.
The myths we carry around inside include unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, unquestioned assumptions, and our ‘automatic stance’.”
Societies founded on religious legalism – as are Mormons – live on their own well-meaning but mostly unconscious conspiracy to consider a myth the truth … the way things really are.
When we are sufficiently convinced of the absolute truthfulness of our mutually and commonly accepted mental construct of the Latter Day Saint version of spiritual reality, we live within a world dominated by our automatic stance.
From that stance we offer testimonies.
We have been acculturated to view testimony as a powerful tool of challenge. As I grew to maturity I was taught as a young missionary and in leadership training that bearing of testimony amounted in fact to the equivalent of painting the person to whom a testimony is borne into a moral corner.
Put in another way, …
“If that of which I testified is not true, then the morally honest listener is obligated to discover that untruthfulness as a protection against being misled.”
Either way, the listener is forced from that moral corner to ask God whether or not the LDS gospel is true; whether or not the LDS gospel is something by which, now that the testimony has been borne, God will use as a basis of holding the hearer accountable for eternity.
It’s a neat way to challenge a listener to do what you want them to do … but in only works under one condition:
You and the listener must be mutually agreed on a spiritual cosmology and spirit world that is absolutely the way the testimony bearer sees it. If the listener does not see things in the same way, there will be no awareness of a moral obligation to test the testifier’s assertion.
It is not unlike a baker insisting he has the perfect recipe for brownies to someone who does not eat brownies. The obvious response to such assertions about baking or religion are the same:
“Yeah … So?”
I learned that I cannot warn or exhort anyone else about the consequences of ignoring or disbelieving my testimony unless that person has bought into a mentally-constructed reality identical to my own … in which there is genuine acceptance of the idea of and existence of “The Truth” in the form taught by Mormonism.
We must address our personal cosmic vision first and foremost. We need to understand the assumptions we have made as we internally constructed our definition of both reality and, if we are spiritually inclined, the spiritual world.
Let’s take a moment to ponder our spiritual cosmic vision.
In a very powerful subconscious way, those who tend to a legalistic or performance-based belief system do so with an internal image of a reality where God “is”, where Jesus “is” and to many, where Satan “is” or “wants to rule.”
From the Judeo-Christian perspective which includes Mormonism, such in a way is a religion-driven imperial reality that serves as the context for how we combine our mortal practice of religion with our understanding of God and Jesus.
Although for all or most Christians who accept that the realm of God truly exists, we do not all agree on what that existence means or how it impacts our lives. For many Christians, the spirit world exists in another dimension and interacts with our own world in supernatural ways.
This is consistent with a view of a purely supernatural, all-wise, all-knowing and almighty God who some times intervenes in the affairs of mortals in dramatic or not-so-dramatic ways. These believing Christians easily accept and live according to the idea of an invisible Jesus/God personage who is vitally invested in human life and directs forces of good against the other supernatural power and source of evil, Satan.
It’s an imperial kingdom of god.
Other believing Christians do not see the supernatural Jesus/God as a personage who exists “somewhere else” and as someone outside the sphere of mortal perception and who communicates spiritually from a distance through the Holy Spirit.
Taking a cue from Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is within you,” they have a sense of God being omnipresent and an on-going constancy in which the Holy Spirit is an uninterrupted and steady influence toward good works and a desire to live, for example, the Golden Rule.
On the one hand there are people who talk about spiritual warfare, evoking images of the spirit world as some sort of zone of conflict in which Satan and God operate simultaneously for and against human life.
On the other hand, others see Satan more as a conceptual part of their attempts to get a grasp on the idea of the existence of evil. Evil for them is not something we are tempted to do by a supernatural Satan. It is more an active part of life that serves as a kind of resistance or counter force against our intention or tendency to behave in an independent manner – acting in a ways that reflect the “goodness” way that Jesus wants us to be.
A similar controversy exists between biblical literalists and non-literalists regarding God as the “Boss of the Universe” who is commanding humans to behavior based purely on obedience and morality.
Non-literalists find it logical to accept the idea of a non-judgmental God who fully encourages positive human behavior as a consequence of total agency.
One version is imperial and the other a more accurate reflection of God giving agency to man without threats or promises of reprisals.
To literalists, Satan becomes the direct opposite and yet needful counter to the goodness and righteous-requiring Commander-God. Satan is a supernatural reality who tempts mortals to sins of of both commission and of omission.
To non-literalists Satan represents among other things the natural mortal tendency to self-focused, self-interested acts that disregard the good of anyone else. In this regard concepts of laziness, selfishness, arrogance and intolerance, for example, represent an awareness of evil and its impact on their actions.
Often one hears oft-repeated stereotypes among believers that non-believers get that way because of laziness (for example, not praying hard enough), selfishness-arrogance-intolerance (refusing to submit and in effect elevating one’s will above a God who requires subordination and unquestioned obedience) … all of which are the “fault” of the doubter and never the fault of the society or its faithful.
In my opinion, we, as a Christian society are strongly impacted by our own internal imagery – imagery that began for many of us in childhood.
Our internal imaginative interpretation of reality is always up, always running and the curtains of our internal stage are always pulled back as we “look and see.”
For those such as I most of our internal religious constructs are inherited. They were taught to us in an absence of encouraged critical thinking.
To the degree that we were taught by the example of Joseph Smith and the words of Brigham Young about his being fearful the members would not pray about what he preached, we were also taught the Moroni Promises method.
But as a correlated tool, we were also given the what-to-pray-about along with the what-the-answer-will-look-like. This in effect attempts to follow the prayer model. However, there’s often an attempt to intercept any urge to take the Promises literally when doing so might result in the asking of the “wrong” questions or asking in such a way as to endanger the institutionally defined testimony. (I have frequently sat in meetings and classes where a teacher or speaker emphasized the importance of “asking the right questions.”)
Such did not work for me. To me that meant that in my own honest and sincere way, coupled with the teaching from DC Section nine about studying things out in one’s mind and feeling good and truthful or a stupor of thought, the Moroni Promises would always work.
That personal belief allowed me to soar above both the legalistic performance-based religious approach as well as the open-ended so-called cafeteria-pick-your-own-beliefs model.
The bottom line with the Moroni Promises as a way (method) of coming to know and commune with the Divine is that such a method is not subject to authorized approval or even worse, a basis of personal worthiness without which the Divine will not answer my prayers.
In the very way the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith promises, answers to my prayers came without conditions.
I learned and came to understand such things as a young, unsure and frightened brand new missionary. I later learned that Joseph had described what I thought I had invented for myself out of necessity back then:
“A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.” – from the Church website: Teachings: Joseph Smith Chapter 10, Prayer and Personal Revelation
I can truthfully bear testimony to what I have written.
The Moroni Promises work for all of us in that way.
We are not obligated to use the Moroni Promises, will not be under condemnation for not doing so and the Lord will not withhold blessings for our failing to do so.