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John recently started a ruckus on his Facebook page, a not entirely uncommon occurrence, when he expressed his astonishment that a certain learned Mormon gentleman made the following statement: “I believe in the Book of Mormon, both its powerful spiritual message and its historical claims.” It was the historical claims that John particularly objected to. Indeed he expressed his absolute and effectively unqualified certainty toward the subject. Aspects of this episode were covered in a previous post here.The reasons for his as we see it exceeding overconfidence were two: 1.) The interview that he conducted with Michael Coe, who is a noted Mesoamericanist, but unfortunately not a scholar of the Book of Mormon, and 2.) A large anti-Mormon tract obtusely named for the Church Educational System. Both of these have been rebutted, by Interpreter and FairMormon respectively, but in what looks like an effort to avoid complicating his thinking by weighing any contrary evidence John does not mention this.

Indeed, in his quest to banish all competing evidence he also feels the need to explain all of those who continue to participate and believe in the church’s truth claims after becoming aware of the various points of history that he finds so damning. Despite such psychological training as we imagine he has been receiving he engages in a frankly startling hasty generalization in which he indicates his considered opinion that

In my experience, anyone who is smart, who has looked at the evidence, and who is not willing to concede this — almost always has some set of forces bearing down upon them (e.g., familial, social, financial, psychological) that prevent them from being able to acknowledge this reality.

Dehlin thus employs ad hominem—attempting to cast doubt on the conclusions of relevant experts by suggesting that the only reason they come to their conclusions is the four forces that he mentions—in order to protect himself from the fact that his non-expert opinion is based on a relatively weak foundation, and should be suspect given the conclusions of those who are more learned than him in the relevant subject areas.

He also apparently feels the need to deny the possibility of spiritual sources of knowledge. He asserts that someone may very well have a good feeling while reading a book, but it is effectively meaningless for determining the truth of the books contents. He is in very pointed terms denying the Holy Ghost as a source of relevant information about things as they are, have been, and will be.

I don’t doubt for a second that people can have beautiful experiences in connection with the Books of Mormon and Abraham. My only point is that they are not what they claim to be (translations of ancient records) — and that this fact matters. Children, youth, adults, and investigators have the right to know this before they commit weeks/months/years of their lives and tens/hundreds of thousands of dollars to the church.

I’m also sure you know that folks tell of similar experiences within the Fundamentalist LDS Church, Islam, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witness, etc.

Emotional experiences do not equal historical legitimacy.

Emotions are real, but they do not prove a church is true, or that books are historical. All they prove is that you felt good things when you were interacting with the church, or with the books. But everyone who believes in a church does so because they had good feelings when interacting with the church. And yes…they’ve all been conditioned to call church-based emotional experiences “spiritual” (yourself included).

But in the end, what you are experiencing is emotions….that you call spiritual.

And if the Holy Ghost really does exist, he has some serious explaining to do…because he keeps telling Catholics to be Catholic, Baptists to be Baptists, Muslims to be Muslims, Fundamentalist Mormons to be Fundamentalist Mormons, Scientologists to be Scientologists, etc.

If you can’t see the pattern there, then yes….there’s not point in us talking.

I 100% validate all of your emotional/spiritual experiences as being meaningful and real to you.

So again….I have no problem with people testifying of the emotional/spiritual experiences that they have had in association with the books.

John’s use of slashes with the word pair emotional/spiritual is telling. In fact I would argue he has a certain amount of contempt for the notion of spiritual. In the above passages produced over a twoish day period he uses emotional/spiritual as a pair twice—he can’t quite bring himself to acknowledge another persons spiritual experience as legitimate—he also places spiritual in quotes once giving it a sense of ‘so called spiritual experiences’, and at one point he asserts that we’ve all been conditioned to call emotional experiences spiritual, and asserts to one of his conversants that what they have experienced is “emotions….that you call spiritual.” This blatant disregard for and (frankly) denial of the experiences of others in order to secure his own worldview is frankly sad, and does not bode well for his prospective counseling career. Frankly deliberately delegitimizing another’s experiences, especially their most significant spiritual experiences in this way borders on the abusive, and is not kosher behavior in the church.

His need to generalize spiritual experience as entirely emotional experiences that don’t convey useful information about things as they are is also rather naive. We read of experiences like Wilford Woodruff’s when he was told by the Spirit to move his carriage and animals and because he obeyed they were preserved from a tornado which tore through the location where they were previously. I am writing this because a paternal ancestor was told by a voice not to cross a river at a particular location, where he later learned an ambush had been waiting. I am writing this also because my mother was warned to slow down while driving in the Utah canyons and did so just before a deer ran past in front of her. I have also my own similar experiences which communicated actual information, and while some of them did have a significant experiential component associated with them, the information communicated was no less real or useful for having been brought via the spirit. So my experience has been that the spirit communicates with people, and is not, as Dehlin’s comments would have us believe ‘nothing more than feelings’. I also know people, sane and boring in all material respects, who do their best to follow the Lord, and serve in the church and are aided in that service and in leading their lives by visions, inspiration, and angels, though they are most often left to figure things out for themselves just like everybody else.

I can also offer at least one counterexample to the narrative that the spirit consists of people’s emotions telling them to simply do whatever they want. I knew a fellow on my mission who was formerly Catholic. He was praying one day, and the Lord told him that he either should or would become a priest. He apparently laughed at this because he was married, but a relatively short time later some missionaries arrived and the same informative connection with God that had begun before his participation with the church led him to become a member.

Now in the interest of balance I should also mention that I don’t believe that the Lord tells everyone to join the church at the first conceivable opportunity. Different people are at different points in their progression and sometimes need different sets of immediate conditions and challenges, and I also think that the Lord even directs certain individuals to continue where they are so that the good that they do in this world wouldn’t be irreparably harmed by their sudden evacuation en masse. I don’t begrudge these people the help of a God who loves them just as He loves me, and I believe that God uses the contexts that they find themselves in to teach them the lessons that they need in order to progress, not all of which explicitly require the ordinances. They are an important step on the path to eternal life, but let’s not forget that something as expansive as progression does not consist in only those few discrete steps.

On the other end of the field of experiences of members of the church are those who at the point they are at now cannot point to a singularly powerful experience that for them is sufficient grounds to say “I know.” A brother of mine recently bore what to me is a beautiful and hopeful testimony describing what he hopes, and that when he follows that hope, and approaches the scriptures as if they are just what they claim it makes him better. This to me is a beautiful act of faith, and I love this brother’s willingness to move forward even in the absence of experiences that would be completely inexplicable outside of a faithful interpretive framework.

I would invite him to step out of his manifestly confining xenophobic worldview, and accept that this world is full—beautifully full—of people with a wide variety of differing experiences that are real, valid, spiritual, and informative, and to stop the attempting to make this world one dimensional by assuming that all spiritual experiences are purely emotional affairs incapable of producing objective information.