Friday, January 7, 2011

Some Questions on Personal Revelation

I've been contemplating this more lately. (Hopefully eventually I'll get around to making a post presenting my own epistemological views now that I've refined them further in dialogue with Latter-day Saints.) I've come up with a few scenarios and I'm curious what sort of feedback I might get.

  1. In the first scenario, consider a Latter-day Saint - let's say his name is Thomas. And suppose that Thomas has a stake president, President Jorgensen. Now suppose that Thomas has an experience that he interprets as a revelation from God. Phenomenologically, that experience is indistinguishable in quality from the experiences that he takes to be a spiritual confirmation of his belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He can tell no difference; it feels precisely the same. But suppose that this apparent revelation has the following content: "The will of the Lord for President Jorgensen is for him to approve a temple recommend for Brother Sheen. Go and tell him." Now, clearly President Jorgensen is not someone under Thomas' stewardship; and yet he has what seems to him to be a revelation for President Jorgensen. And suppose that when Thomas prays for further confirmation, he experiences whatever it is that he experiences every time he prays for fresh confirmation of his spiritual witness of the Church. What should Thomas do? Should he approach President Jorgensen and offer him this advice as revelation? Should he approach President Jorgensen and offer him this advice, but not stipulate that he believes it to have been received as revelation? Should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but still consider it to be a true revelation from God? Should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but consider it to be something he concocted on his own? Or should he refrain from mentioning it to President Jorgensen but dismiss it as having been a revelation from Satan?
  2. In the second scenario, Thomas has yet another experience that appears to him to be revelation from God, by whatever criteria he uses to evaluate the phenomena of his experience. As in the previous scenario, it feels to him the exact same way that his spiritual confirmation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt to him. But this apparent revelation is not counsel. Instead, in this scenario, the content is as follows: "There are three Heavenly Mothers, and the time has come for the people of God to begin praying openly to each of them by name. Their names, respectively, are Asherah, Sekhmet, and Isis." What should Thomas do? (See range of options mentioned above, mutatis mutandis. And if it helps to uncomplicate things, feel free to subtract the policy change regarding prayer to Heavenly Mother.)

I asked another Latter-day Saint this, and he essentially refused to answer the question (which, alas, is an all-too-common response to questions I ask...), but he intimated that Thomas should dismiss the revelation as either Satanic or human in origin. The grounds he gave for this is that God is a God of order and has implemented a very specific channel of communication for such revelation. Hence, he can know a priori that God would never give this sort of revelation to Thomas; God would only ever go through the channels of 'priesthood authority'. So Thomas could never hope to receive a revelation like either of these; the only revelation that could ever come to Thomas would be personal guidance for himself or his family, or confirmation of something that the Church already officially teaches.

Now, here seems to be the implication of this. If Thomas dismisses either of these apparent revelations, then that means three things. One, personal revelation may be judged by criteria independent of that personal revelation. I have had many Latter-day Saints deny this to me, because in their opinion personal revelation is incorrigible - that is, if they perceive something as being personal revelation, then there is absolutely nothing they could ever learn or think that would be able to persuade them that it was not revelation from God. Thus, the phenomena of personal revelation would be the final verdict. But if there is a criterion for judgment, then there is something that can possibly correct what seems to be personal revelation. And depending on the criterion used, that could have serious implications for LDS-Evangelical dialogue. (For instance, perhaps one might wish to use the universal tradition of Christian believers as such a criterion; then a reason would be needed for rejecting that as a reasonable criterion. And it goes without saying that for Protestants in particular, the Bible has always been the decisive and authoritative criterion of any experience or religious claim.)

The second implication of Thomas dismissing either of these apparent revelations is that it means that the phenomena of the private religious experience itself is not sufficient to assure one of its validity. But if the phenomena of these experiences do not ensure validity, then neither can the same phenomena ensure the validity of the experience that Thomas took as a revelation that 'the Church is true' (whatever, precisely, is meant to be implied by that common phrase). On what grounds, then, should he accept the validity of that experience? (I can think of a potential response to that, but I want to continue developing it mentally before I attempt to publicize it.)

The third implication is... if Thomas can only hope for revelation on a certain narrow scope of issues that pertain to practical concerns within his limited sphere of stewardship, then is personal revelation really all it's cracked up to be? Maybe a case could be made for its usefulness, but it seems to me that within many segments of Evangelicalism, there's a strong popular sense that we can, in fact, feel the Holy Spirit witness to us in order to guide us personally in certain things. (But we're less likely to describe it as 'revelation', and we're also less likely to invest our denominational hierarchies with greater powers of receiving such - and definitely less likely to be easily persuaded that anything from our denominational hierarchy can match or exceed the Bible in authority.) So if personal revelation - as conceived of by Latter-day Saints - is so limited, then in what way is that a selling point that isn't also shared by numerous Evangelical groups?

(And perhaps we can add yet a further difficulty. Suppose that Thomas has a criterion by which he has heretofore been judging putative revelations. Now suppose that Thomas receives a third putative revelation that includes the content: "Your criterion for judging revelations is false." What might Thomas do? If the revelation is true, then he could not justly judge it by that criterion. If the revelation is false, then it should be dismissed anyway - but how is he to judge it false? For if he uses his usual criterion, that would be a blatant case of begging the question, since the validity of the criterion is precisely what is contested. This seems like an interesting quandary that deserves to be explored further in the future once I've done more reading on the subject of belief-policies...)

On the other hand, suppose that Thomas does ultimately conclude that these revelations are fully authentic and that he should act on them. What then? Suppose that you were now cast in the shoes of President Jorgensen. How would you attempt to persuade Thomas to disregard his apparent revelations without giving up his faith in the Church or in personal revelation as a real possibility? Or, would you accept them as valid revelations? (For the sake of simplicity, suppose that when you pray for your own confirmation of them, you get neither a positive nor a negative response.) And what would you do if Thomas begins to present his revelations to the rest of his ward?

1 comment:

  1. It seems Joseph Smith did not have to play by the LDS church rules.