To continue from my previous post, I want to focus on three areas of my belief that are central to why I am a Mormon. I want to clarify again that I am not interested in making arguments against other beliefs, nor am I trying to defend what I believe. I only intend this to be an explanation of what informs my own belief and religious experience.
In this post I want to talk about the importance of personal and continuing revelation. Both of these terms deserve some explanation. Mormonism places revelation front and center. It is the central message of it foundational moment when Joseph Smith enters the woods at the age of fourteen and seeks resolution to his own conundrum about which church to join. Mormonism includes but goes beyond the idea that God can answer our own prayers individually. My religion is also a claim about God’s revelations to the human family, and in this way it connects the process of how we might we come to understand his will individually to the ultimate question of how we might come to understanding his will collectively as his children.
I have lived, like most people I suppose, with a desire for greater wisdom and understanding when I am faced with big life-changing decisions or with persistent challenges in my career or in my relationships with family, friends, or colleagues and with a longing for confidence and clarity about ultimate truths. In my previous post I described feelings of happiness that have deepened over the years and given me greater certainty about eternal truth as a result of my willingness to discipline myself and truly practice my religion. I would say that this is one form of personal revelation for me, but it isn’t the only form. I have had over the years a variety of different experiences that I would also describe as personal revelation. All of these I believe are made possible through the workings of the Holy Ghost. In sharing these briefly, I do not in any way suppose or believe that I am exceptional. I believe these experiences are available to all and I find that they are not uncommon in my church.
Sometimes I have prayed with great difficulty in times of sorrow and trial and feelings of peace and comfort have swept over me, as if I were being embraced. I have prayed for knowledge and understanding of spiritual matters, and answers have come in the form of sudden moments of clarity and understanding, either immediately during a prayer or some time afterwards. This might be in the context of a conversation with a friend or while reading or in quiet contemplation at a later point and I recognize this clarity as an unmistakable answer. I still have many unanswered questions and the process of exploring is ongoing. Indeed, other revelations have not been direct answers to questions but they have been experiences that provide deeper wisdom about situations or conundrums in my life. Many times, I have felt an increased capacity and strength to love and to endure even when the specific answer I have sought hasn’t come. On a few very special occasions in my life these revelations have come in the form of dreams from which I have awakened with a paradigm-shifting sense of how I ought to live my life. I would say revelation comes to me very often while reading great books or listening to great music or watching an inspired movie. These might be manifestations of the reality of God and the inherent value of life and of my own growing love for all people or they might be moments of particular insight. In any case, these moments are frequent and a source of great comfort to me and a reason for my abiding love for great art and my belief that it is inspired of God. And finally, whenever I have struggled to feel God near me and when his reality seems to drift, I am always amazed at how quickly a spirit of love and confidence and optimism comes to me when I earnestly ask whom I might be able to serve. Names and faces and ideas come to me right away and, when I have acted on those impressions, I am immediately drawn closer to God and my confidence is strengthened. This seems as great evidence as any that God lives and loves us.
The most dramatic experience I had in my early years with personal revelation requires some explanation. Early on, such questions as the existence of God, the reality of the redeeming power of Jesus Christ, and the truthfulness of the scriptures and teachings of my church were issues that needed fundamental resolution and were the focus of many of my strivings. I didn’t want to know merely that God existed. His existence didn’t seem to be enough for me. I wanted a relationship and I wanted to know whether or not I should devote my life to my church.
On the verge of turning 18, I had a remarkable conversation with my father who entered my room one Saturday morning after I had been to a rock concert the night before. He told me calmly and lovingly that he was concerned that I was making choices that I felt I had to hide from my parents. He said he felt badly knowing that a son of his did not feel comfortable being honest with his parents and that he wanted to reassure me that no matter what choices I was making, he would still love me and treat me the same. All he wanted was the truth. So when he asked me about my choices and activities, I felt completely comfortable telling him everything. Finally. I had wanted this very badly but didn’t know how to talk to him or to my mom. I thought they would never understand. All he asked was that in the future I tell him where I was going, what I would be doing, and whom I would be with. I still can’t believe the courage and the trust that he had to say that to me, but it brought out a needed maturity and an accountability in me. That night I told him where I was going but reassured him I would not be drinking or anything else. He asked me if I was sure, and I told him, “I am done, Dad.” That was the end of my drinking and smoking and the beginning of my attempt to get serious about my religion.
I began to pray. I began to read the scriptures. And I began to feel a change of heart and an excitement and a hunger for what I was learning. I was eager to be a new man. It was only months later that my brother would take his life, and I have often thought that perhaps I was more prepared for what was about to happen because of my conversion. It would be more accurate to say that my brother’s death solidified the conversion. That is because despite the pain and shock I was in, I felt something comforting, something or someone present as I never had before in my life. I knew I would serve a mission and that my life would never be the same. I didn’t have much of an idea just how long the trauma and shock of such a loss stays with you for years and years and how, in many ways, I would need to process it over and over again in my middle age. But everything, absolutely everything changed with that one event. I knew life was fragile, but I also learned in the most intimate way I have ever experienced that life does not end at death. This was a personal revelation of the most important kind. I describe both the experience of my brother’s death and of this personal revelation in greater detail in Home Waters, but suffice it to say that after a pleading prayer for peace some weeks after my brother died and many nights of disturbed sleep, I lay in my bed in the dark and felt the presence of my brother in my room. And, even though I didn’t see him, I felt him near and understood that we could communicate. He told me he was at peace, that he wanted us to be at peace, and that all would be well. And I never had another nightmare about him again. And I have never doubted since that life continues after this one.
It has been my observation, as I have written before, that how I live affects the shape and mood and vitality of my beliefs more directly than almost anything else. Over the years of both positive and negative examples of this kind, I have come to rely heavily on this as an indicator of what is true. I have found that personal revelation comes to me either in the act of repenting itself or as a result of repentance. Knowledge of the truth, it seems, is never independent of what I am willing to do with that knowledge. In this way, spiritual learning is different from other kinds of learning. I might be able to master algebra or a foreign language or the chemistry tables without love and humility in my heart, but my capacity for spiritual learning is directly affected by my desire to be corrected. I have learned that it is simply too easy to slip into self-justifications. For that reason, I sometimes am suspicious of claims that one ought to live one’s life merely and only according to one’s conscience. I certainly believe in the importance of integrity and being true to oneself, but I can’t make my conscience my god. I would prefer that my God teach me to have a better conscience. I say this because I have noticed how changeable my conscience can be according to the many “gods” I might feel tempted to worship. I am a Mormon because I feel that I have a reliable method for checking in from time to time to make sure that my convictions, the lights by which I guide myself, are as close to God’s truths as they can be.
That method is my devotion and faithfulness to those whom I consider to be the Lord’s anointed mouthpieces and special witnesses of Christ. This involves close reading of scripture but also close attention to the teachings of living prophets and apostles who lead my church. By that I mean that my obligation is to strive to seek personal revelation regarding their revelations which are given on behalf of the human family. For me, then, revelation is both personal and continuing and, as a process, should be both individual and corporate, that is, collective and embedded in our membership in the body of faith. I don’t only receive revelation alone but also in a community, and that is probably because it would be selfish to believe that revelation was for me alone. If personal revelation is possible, it is also possible for all people, and that means that I should be as eager to hear God’s voice in the privacy of my own prayers as I am about hearing it in the voices of others, starting first in the voices of those closest to me. I should also strive to be that kind of voice for others. This means that, motivated by my love of Christ, I should be devoted to seeking God’s truths in all cultures, peoples, and circumstances and not in church alone. Church, however, is a vital learning ground for understanding this process. I am instructed each and every Sunday by God through very human and particular personalities. Just today in sacrament meeting a very young boy boldly stood and talked about the blessing of having choices in life and all I could think was, were God desirous to say anything to us through that small and frail and human voice this morning, it would be exactly what that boy was saying. And when I have listened to the prophets and apostles of my church, I have frequently had exactly that same feeling that God is speaking through them on behalf of all of us.
The corporate nature of this enterprise is no easy matter. It means checking ourselves against people whose personalities and worldviews don’t match ours exactly. It means that difference of opinion, even on sacred matters, is likely, maybe even inevitable and that therefore dialogue and collaboration are necessary to further winnow and refine truth. But it also means that we are better off together than separate. After all, my stewardship is over my relationships to my body and the bodies of other human beings and to the body of this earth, and God seems particularly invested in wanting me to be successful and resourceful and careful in that stewardship. A God who does not speak personally nor continually to us as his children would make such stewardship very difficult indeed. Personal and continuing revelation help me to avoid worshipping a god after my own image, which is to worship and believe in a world and a god that are merely and only for me or merely imagined by me. I don’t want to invent God. I want him to be revealed to me. I understand that such revelation doesn’t come without some imagination, invention, experimentation, and sacrifice and that it doesn’t come easily. Indeed, much of life is a measure of how well we can live with the little light we already have, but my experience tells me that revelation of something new and previously unknown is always possible. That is my conviction and my hope. And without the structure my church provides of ongoing conversation with others and with God, I worry that I would not avoid the narcissism of believing in the inherent worth and truth of my own passions and whims. I will acknowledge that in our enthusiasm for the existence of living prophets and apostles, we Mormons sometimes feel tempted to overstate how many answers to life we have, but it has certainly been my experience that I have little doubt about how I ought to be living my life. That is no small matter, and I am indebted beyond words for it.
I have had many experiences with the prophets and apostles of my church where I have received a personal witness that they are acting as special witnesses of the living Christ. Two experiences are probably worth rehearsing here. The first was listening to Elder Dallin Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles testify to a room full of missionaries in the Mission Training Center in 1985 as I was preparing to leave for Venezuela as a missionary. He spoke as if with a great wind that this was not the church of the Wasatch Front or the church of Utah but of Jesus Christ who stood at the head of the church. He bore witness of his living reality, and I could see at that moment that all of my cultural assumptions, all of my shallow experience were not nearly enough to bring to bear on what the church was or would yet be. And I could see that Elder Oaks was a man, but a man with a visionary understanding that was broader than his own assumptions and experiences as well. It was this vision he was eager to pass on and for the sake of the possibility of such vision, I knew I owed him my loyalty. I had work to do. Again a few months later I listened to Elder Neal Maxwell, also of the Quorum of the Twelve, for two hours teaching and testifying of Christ to a small group of missionaries in a chapel in El Tigre, Venezuela. So powerful were his words and were those two hours that I was half expecting angels to descend through the ceiling. It wasn’t a frenzy of emotion for its own sake. It left me wanting to live a higher law, live more deliberately and lovingly and genuinely. How I loved that man and his teaching. I didn’t feel inclined to worship or falsely idolize him, nor do I now with regard to any of the church leaders. He too was a man, but I could feel what weighed on him, and I was beginning to understand that my obligation in listening to such men was not blind obedience or idol worship but faithful attendance and listening to whatever stood a chance of transcending their own humanity. One final example was listening Elder Russell Ballard testify in Provo to a group of local church leaders about the presence of lost loved ones in our lives. He assured us the dead are among us, that they serve us and are concerned for our well-being. Having already had several experiences with my brother’s presence, I took this very much to heart. That night I had no doubt that my brother was next to me nor any doubt that another elder brother, the Savior himself, was present in the room. I say this because of how gently and lovingly I felt called to repentance. I felt confidence that this church would lead me in the path of discipleship to the Son of God.
Lest anyone conclude that I am just prone to silly moments of delusion or overt submission, I have to say that I have not always been charitable in my view of church leaders. The truth is that I have always seen a person’s humanity pretty quickly. I don’t tend to idealize easily, least of all with people we are expected to admire. I tend to treat them, at least initially, with even more suspicion. I have seen the humanity of every one of my Bishops, of my mission president, of my own parents, and most of all in myself. And yet I have learned that God reached as close to the earth as to reach me, so it is perfectly understandable that he would intend to communicate to us as a whole, that we would have to look to one another and to those he had especially prepared to bring some order to the potential chaos of revelation. My trust in continual revelation through living prophets has not displaced the personal connection but it seems to have enhanced it and even encouraged it. That, for me, has been important evidence of the goodness of what I experience in the church. It wasn’t anything like a brainwashing since I felt more reinforced than ever before in the value of my personal path, my intimate and personal experiences. I could feel that God wanted me, all of me, everything about me. I remain as intellectually engaged as a critical thinker as ever, and I would even say that the stronger my fidelity to the practices of my religion, the freer my intellect feels to explore, ask questions, and turn over new soils.
In those moments when I have sometimes bristled or struggled to accept or understand the particular point of view of a church leader, I have sought out conversation and understanding from trusted friends, I have tested those ideas against the teachings of other leaders, and I have sought the Lord. I never stop asking questions, and I don’t believe my loyalty requires me to. Quite the opposite. Revelation doesn’t have meaning unless it is deeply processed throughout the body of believers. In the church we are unified by that trust that God speaks to us collectively and individually, but our unity becomes the most meaningful and sustainable when we give ourselves and others the time and space to work out their own individual relationship to the word. I believe that it is a lack of faith that causes us to feel impatient with and intolerant of the inevitable variety of experiences with faith in any family or church community.
I fully recognize how strange my belief might sound to others who have not had those experiences. Had I not had them, I probably would view them with similar suspicion. I sometimes do myself, just to double check myself. I can only say that experimenting on the words I have read in scripture or have heard in church has borne good fruit that is worthy of my continued diligence. I cannot deny the validity of my experiences with the divine calling of my church leaders, and my faith tells me that over time there will be a consistency of teaching and of tone and spirit that will bear out the truths that are most important for me to follow. This is why I have also not felt the need to panic or to be overly critical when things don’t sit right for me. And that patience to wait on the Lord has brought me much peace and stability in changing times and seasons of my life.