Thoughtful Sunday School

Lessons 5 & 6: The Spirit

This addendum accompanies lessons 5 and 6 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.

Background

These lessons focus on the ability of the Spirit to teach us. That means a change in focus from the outward, historical events of earlier lessons to inward, subjective experiences. Personally, I struggle to find words that can adequately describe my spiritual experiences; words usually feel stale and flat compared to the overwhelming, transcendent feelings that such experiences can bring. In this lesson addendum I attempt to show reverence for the spiritual experiences had by people in our church, in other churches, and outside any church at all. I also explore the limits and dangers of such experiences when they are interpreted overzealously or manipulated by others.

Spiritual Experiences Bring Peace, Joy, And Purpose

In this short video, people from a variety of religious traditions describe the overwhelming positive feelings that have accompanied their spiritual experiences.

Though the exact words of each person differ, the intensely powerful and positive nature of their spiritual experiences is consistent. Here are some of their words:

These feelings happen in non-religious contexts as well. They can come through music, art, nature, by witnessing acts of altruism and kindness, or in situations when we feel especially unified with our fellow man. Historian William McNeill described the altered state of consciousness he sometimes felt when doing synchronized marching in the military:

Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.1

Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, described similar spiritual feelings from dancing at a rave:

What I experienced next changed my perspective forever…. Yes, the decorations and lasers were pretty cool, and yes, this was the largest single room full of people dancing that I had ever seen. But neither of those things explained the feelings of awe that I was experiencing … As someone who is usually known as being the most logical and rational person in a group, I was surprised to find myself swept with an overwhelming sense of spirituality–not in the religious sense, but a sense of deep connection with everyone who was there as well as the rest of the universe.2

Andre Comte-Sponville, an atheist, wrote about having a similarly transcendent experience when walking in nature with friends:

“The first time it happened, I was in a forest in the north of France. I must have been twenty-five or twenty-six. … That particular evening, some friends and I had gone out for a walk in the forest we liked so much. Night had fallen. We were walking. Gradually our laughter faded, and the conversation died down. Nothing remained but our friendship, our mutual trust and shared presence. … I was simply registering the world around me— the darkness of the underbrush, the incredible luminosity of the sky, the faint sounds of the forest (branches snapping, an occasional animal call, our own muffled steps) only making the silence more palpable. And then, all of a sudden… What? Nothing: everything! No words, no meanings, no questions, only— a surprise. Only— this. A seemingly infinite happiness. A seemingly eternal sense of peace. Above me, the starry sky was immense, luminous and unfathomable, and within me there was nothing but the sky, of which I was a part, and the silence, and the light, like a warm hum, and a sense of joy. … Yes, in the darkness of that night, I contained only the dazzling presence of the All. Peace. Infinite peace! Simplicity, serenity, delight.”3

The spiritual experiences above happened for people of many different religions, or no religion at all. They happened in a variety of settings. But they consistently include powerful feelings of joy, peace, and a connection both to other people and something infinitely larger than oneself. They can bind people together, making the individual self melt away to become part of a greater whole. They can also be powerfully transformative, causing people to make major life changes and commitments. The positive, transformative power of spiritual experiences make them something we should celebrate and encourage.

People In All Religions See Spiritual Experiences As Confirmation of Their Beliefs

Though all people’s spiritual feelings are worth encouraging and celebrating, people also often use them as proof of specific religious beliefs. The contradictions between these spiritually-confirmed beliefs should make us very cautious about ascribing exclusive or dogmatic meaning to our spiritual experiences. In this clip, several people describe how their spiritual experiences led them to believe that their church was the correct one.

To quote these speakers:

When Joseph Smith was searching to know the truth about God, he was frustrated that people received so many contradictory answers by studying the Bible. He was especially disturbed by the rancor with which people disagreed about religious beliefs, despite professing to follow Jesus. He shared this experience:

For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, … when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions….

While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.4

Joseph had a problem with people getting very different answers by reading the same Bible. He recognized that we can’t trust a method of answering questions if it gives different answers to different people. Though the Bible itself was part of the problem, it was also where Joseph found his answer: to ask God himself.

The problem that Joseph found with the Bible leading people to different conclusions is similar to the problem we see with spiritual witnesses leading people to different conclusions. If we humbly acknowledge that other people’s experiences are as valid as our own, then we should be hesitant to claim that the Spirit testifies that our church is true and theirs is not. To use spiritual experiences as proof of the correctness of one’s beliefs, and the incorrectness of another’s, is both prideful and misguided.

This does not mean that spiritual experiences should be discounted entirely, or treated as irrelevant to how we live our lives. It does mean that we should be modest about our claims. We can, and should, share the joy and beauty we have found. We can even say “I feel that God wants me to be in this church.” But we should realize that we are delegitimizing and disparaging many others’ sacred experiences when we tell them “I know this is the only true church.” If we want to make broad, accurate statements about what the Spirit teaches, we should look to the elements of spiritual experiences that are consistent regardless of what church one is in. Those consistent elements teach that we are all connected to each other, and to something infinitely larger than ourselves.

Spiritual Experiences Can Be Manipulated To Support Violence and Oppression

Though the feelings we get from spiritual experiences are intensely positive, people and institutions may impose meaning on them that turns them to self-serving, violent, or tragic ends. The next clip shows three examples of this.

The first speaker in the video describes participating in a group meditation and experiencing an “explosion of energy go up my spine.” He interpreted this experience as pointing him to follow Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple. The group had as many as 20,000 followers at its peak in the 1970s, when it established a commune in Guyana called “Jonestown.” U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Jonestown in 1978 to investigate claims of abuse in the settlement. He found several members of the group who wanted to leave, but was gunned down, along with several journalists, before he could do so. Later that night, the residents of Jonestown committed mass murder/suicide, forcing 918 people to drink cyanide-laced Kool Aid. The victims included 276 children.5

The second group of people in the video describe their experiences finding truth in the Heaven’s Gate movement. Their leader, Marshall Applewhite, encouraged investigators to ask God for their own spiritual confirmations of his message:

At least ponder this, that you go into the privacy of your closet. Don’t ask your neighbors, your friends. You go see if you can connect with the purest, highest source that you might consider God. And say, ‘What about this? Is this for real?’6

This approach worked for Applewhite. As one follower said, “it was something that I knew inside me.”

Applewhite taught that his followers could perfect themselves through a life of asceticism, after which they could ascend to a higher life by dying for the cause or being transferred to a next level body while aboard an alien spacecraft. When the Hale-Bopp comet flew near the earth in 1997, Applewhite taught that an alien spacecraft was flying in its wake and would pick up those who were ready to ascend. They attempted to do so on March 19th and 20th, when thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate group drank a mixture of phenobarbitol and applesauce, washed it down with vodka, put plastic bags over their heads, and laid down to die.7

Though the third segment of this clip doesn’t implicate violence like the first two, it may still be more chilling to a Latter-Day Saint listener. The girl’s testimony has the same intonation and phrasing we’ve become accustomed to hearing in LDS testimony meetings. But then we realize she’s bearing testimony not of the LDS church, but of a polygamous offshoot. Despite still being a teenager, she has already become a man’s polygamous wife, and may never have the chance for any other life.

Our own religious tradition includes troubling examples of people believing that that God had prompted them to commit violence. Abraham believed that God commanded him to kill his son Isaac, before an angel intervened. Jewish scholars have argued for centuries whether Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son made him pass the test or fail it.8 In the Book of Mormon, Nephi beheads an unconscious man, saying he was “constrained by the Spirit” to do so.9

Some overzealous Mormons have taken these stories as license to commit their own violence. In 1982, a man in Logan, Utah placed his 11 month old son on the table and slowly lowered a knife toward the baby while he “looked toward heaven for strength.” The father said he was “moved by the spirit” to test his faith, but there was no angel or ram in the thicket, and he stabbed his son in the belly. The parents and neighbors prayed over the baby for two hours as he slowly died, before police were called.10

In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty from American Fork, Utah slit the throats of their sister-in-law and her infant daughter after Ron had a revelation directing the mother’s “removal”. Ron and Dan believed that the LDS church had apostatized from the true doctrine taught by Joseph Smith, including polygamy. Their sister-in-law was highly critical of their teachings, however, and came to be seen as an obstacle. Ron’s revelation directing the killing specifically likened his brother, who wielded the knife, to the Book of Mormon’s Nephi:

Thus saith the Lord unto My servant Dan…. Thou art like unto Nephi of old for never since the beginning of time have I had a more obedient son. And for this I will greatly bless thee, and multiply thy seed, for have I not said if ye do what I say I am bound[?] Continue in My word for I have great responsibility and great blessings in store for thee. That is all for now. Even so Amen.11

It is tempting to tell ourselves “that would never be me. I would never do that.” And we may be right. But if we teach that spiritual promptings or prophetic revelations are the supreme source of truth, and never discuss their limitations, then we may unwittingly encourage or set the stage for abuse and violence like that described above. We need to resist fundamentalism when still sitting in Sunday School. Waiting until after atrocities have occurred is too little, too late.

To safeguard against such misguided zealotry, I propose that we adopt this policy from Michael Austin, a university administrator and blogger at By Common Consent:

… if God ever tells me to whack someone, the answer is no. Just no. I don’t care if he speaks to me through a still small voice, or a burning bush, or a thundering command from the sky. And I don’t care if he wants me to learn how to sacrifice everything and is planning to pluck a ram from the thicket at the last minute. I’m not taking that chance. If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times. I don’t smite.12

Summary

This addendum attempts to plot a course between two extremes. On one side are those who claim that their spiritual experiences trump everybody else’s. On the other side are those who claim that spiritual experiences are pure delusion. Spiritual experiences are a fact of human existence. For most people, they are incredibly positive. We should embrace the good that such experiences bring, humbly acknowledge their limitations, and safeguard against their excesses. To summarize this middle way in checklist form:

  1. Seek sacred and spiritual experiences. They bring incredible meaning and joy to our lives.
  2. Recognize that the spiritual confirmations of others are likely to conflict with your own. If someone shares such an experience with you, try to celebrate the joy you have both found, rather than trying to disprove or explain away their experience.
  3. Remember that the meanings attached to spiritual experiences are imposed by ourselves and our environment. Be extremely skeptical of anyone telling you that your spiritual experiences obligate you to give your money or your obedience to any other person or institution.
  4. Never use a spiritual experience to justify violence or oppression. Strenuously resist anyone who attempts to make such justifications.

  1. McNeill, W.H. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, as quoted in Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

  2. Hsieh, Tony. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, as quoted in Haidt.

  3. Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Penguin Books, 2008, as quoted in Ogden, Jon. When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life (pp. 56-57). Kindle Edition.

  4. Joseph Smith: History, 5-12.

  5. Peoples Temple. Wikipedia, accessed Jan. 22, 2017.

  6. Ogden, Jon. When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life (p. 110). Kindle Edition. This quote is a transcription of a YouTube clip of Applewhite speaking.

  7. Heaven’s Gate. Wikipedia, accessed Jan. 22, 2017.

  8. Binding of Isaac, Wikipedia, accessed Jan. 29 2017.

  9. 1 Nephi 4:10.

  10. A Logan man pleaded innocent by reason of insanity…. United Press International, Jan. 28, 1982.

  11. Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven p. 167.

  12. Austin, Michael. Abrahamic Tests. By Common Consent, Jan. 11, 2016. Accessed Jan. 29, 2017.