I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That’s a long name, so in the interest of efficient communication most people just call us Mormons1. Last weekend was the church’s semi-annual General Conference. It consists of five 2-hour sessions, each broadcast to church meetinghouses worldwide and streamed live on the internet. Speakers chosen from church leadership select their own topics, usually focused on some aspect of Christ’s life or on how we can apply his teachings and doctrine to our own lives today.
This conference is a special time for us; we believe the church is led by literal prophets and apostles, authorized and ordained just like the apostles during Christ’s life. Getting messages from all of them, in one weekend, is a feast for the spiritually inclined. You might think of it somewhat like a weekend of spiritually-focused TED talks.
During the conference I was tweeting things that stood out to me. This led to a few discussions with my followers, which I was happy to entertain.
If you have questions about Mormons or my beliefs, feel free to ask. I’ll answer what I can now, though sometimes 140 characters is hard.
— BJ Homer (@bjhomer) April 5, 2014
I answered the questions as well as I could, and had some great conversations. Some questions, though, are difficult to answer in 140 characters, so I wanted to revisit a few of those here over the next few days and provide more complete answers.
@bjhomer Genuinely curious: why have faith in that notion of God+teachings instead of some other one (Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, etc)?
— Andy Matuschak (@andy_matuschak) April 5, 2014
The short answer to this question is simply “Because God told me so.” Mormons believe that everyone is capable of receiving direct personal revelation, and that God expects us to use it.
On this topic of personal revelation, it’s important to understand our relationship with God. God cares deeply about us, because we are literally his children. Each of us lived with him as a spirit, his spirit children, before we were born here on Earth. Revelation from God, then, is literally communication between parent and child. He is eager to help us learn.
You and I adjust our communication according to the person we’re speaking with. A conversation between myself and a technical co-worker sounds very different from a conversation with my wife, and both are different from a conversation with a non-technical family friend, or a conversation with my children. We all adjust the content and manner of our communication according to the understanding and needs of the recipient.
God does the same when he speaks to us. Because he wants us to develop and exercise faith, he rarely speaks to us face-to-face2. Instead, he speaks to us through various other mechanisms. He can guide our thoughts, touch our emotions, and influence our dreams. He can give us an unshakable feeling that something is wrong, or that something is right. He can remind us of things we have learned before, and plant thoughts we’ve never before considered.
All of these mechanisms, and many others, are available to God as he communicates with us. And because each of us is unique, he tailors his revelation to each of us according to our unique abilities to learn and our skill in perceiving his communication. For me, revelation often comes as new insights into some topic, accompanied by powerful feeling that what I’m considering is right, that it just makes sense—how could it be any other way? Sometimes, it may come as a warm feeling in the heart, a comfort and peace that things are just right. Infrequently, I’ve had dreams that seemed to have special significance to them; they gave me new understanding of a situation.
Because God’s revelation is uniquely suited to each individual, it cannot be shared. I can tell you what I’ve learned, but I cannot prove my revelation to you. Each person has the opportunity to seek revelation from God on their own, and receive the same confirmation. This invitation is given in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon:
New Testament – James 1:5
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.
Book of Mormon – Moroni 10:4
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
So, I believe that my church teaches the truth about God because I’ve asked him in prayer if that is so, and I believe he has answered through direct revelation that it does. It really comes down to that, in the end.
Andy had another question at the end of our conversation:
@bjhomer When you do, can you try to answer: “it feels right” is unacceptable in other areas of study; why’s it a valid justification here?
— Andy Matuschak (@andy_matuschak) April 5, 2014
“It feels right” is appropriate because revelation is communication, not scientific inquiry. We are not studying God, we are talking to him. Talking with him. Scientific3 inquiry comes, if appropriate, as we choose whether to act on the guidance he gives us. When we act in faith on received revelation, we make a hypothesis (of sorts) that acting on that communication will produce some desired outcome. After doing so, we can evaluate the results. That process will, I believe, validate the initial exercise of faith.
This principle of acting in faith is an inherent part of our relationship with our Father. He wants it that way, it seems; there are things we can learn when forced to act in faith that we cannot learn any other way4.
“It feels right” is also appropriate simply because that’s often how God speaks; it is not our privilege to dictate how he will communicate. For most of history, a rigorous scientific method for discovering truth was unknown. Even today, there are many people throughout the world who lack the training to adequately seek truth through careful examination of hypotheses and control groups. Our Father is not just interested that somebody know the truth; he wants it available to all of us.
God speaks the way he does precisely so that we can all hear his voice, no matter who or where we are.
I’d love to hear feedback on this article. I’ll respond most quickly on Twitter, but you can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have other questions about my faith that you’d like to see answered, please let me know. I’ve got a couple more posts already planned, and I’ll keep writing as long as there are questions.
1: The common use of “Mormon” as a reference to the church is derived from our acceptance of The Book of Mormon as an additional book of canonical scripture alongside the Bible. Despite the nickname, we follow and worship Jesus Christ, not Mormon or any other person.↩
2: Face-to-face appearances have occurred, both anciently and modernly, but they are rare. They carry with them an increased responsibility upon the recipient—when you have that kind of knowledge that God exists, he expects more of you. Excuses hold less weight when you absolutely know better.↩
3: I use the term “scientific” here quite loosely, as the inherent nature of personal revelation makes it impossible to construct any sort of control group or independent verification. Everyone can have the experience of communicating with their Father in Heaven, but each person’s experience will be unique and personal.↩
4: We believe that a primary purpose of our time here on Earth is to develop attributes and learn skills that we simply could not learn while constantly in the presence of God. Much like some baby birds learns to fly only when kicked out of the nest, there are some aspects of us that can only grow while away from God’s immediate presence.↩
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