Christian Meditation

March 14, 2005 | 30 comments
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This week’s lesson in my ward’s Priesthood and Relief Society meetings was number four, “The Elements of Worship.” As we talked about reverence, meditation, and communion, I was reminded of a talk President Hinckley gave when, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, on one of many visits to Korea, he spoke to the missionaries. I don’t recall the topic of his talk, but I vividly recall him talking about the need for meditation. I doubt that I ever thought about meditation before that moment. I wasn’t sure what he meant. But it was clear that he thought it was important and I wanted to find out.

I tried sitting just quietly before my prayers, thinking about what I wanted to say in them, and found that was, indeed, helpful to my prayers. I tried reading and pondering scripture, but that was less successful. That there was no particular time of the day set aside for pondering was one problem. Something else always seemed to take whatever time that would have taken. But more difficult was the fact that I didn’t really know what to do.

In graduate school, as I learned to read scripture with a Jewish professor who condescended (and that is exactly the right word to describe what he did) to work with me, I came to understand better what pondering the scriptures could mean, and it became an important part of my life. But I didn’t think about it as meditation until today.

We have very little in our tradition that would count as advice about how to meditate, though we occasionally recommend it, and we regularly provide opportunities for it, such as the Sacrament and the Temple. Indeed, meditating during the ordinance of the Sacrament was clearly what President McKay had in mind. However, that he was using a vocabulary foreign to Mormons–”meditation” and “communion”–created difficulties for the teacher. Speaking of meditation, various class members challenged the teacher, asking “How do we do that?” “Is it the same as prayer?” “Does that just mean ‘thinking about things’?”

As I heard the lesson and realized that I have been meditating for a long time without calling it that, and as I remembered President Hinckley’s advice and reflected on President McKay’s teachings, I thought I might have something to say about meditation. But I wasn’t sure just what because I’d not thought in those terms before. Besides, even had I had a completely thought-out understanding of meditation, I wasn’t teaching the lesson.

I thought about meditation this afternoon and while fixing dinner, and I think I can begin to say something. Of course, what I have to say is based only on my experience and no more. I’ve done a lot of scripture study, and I once spent time meditating in a more Eastern way for several months on the advice of a doctor. (I didn’t quit because it wasn’t working, just because I kept finding it hard to find the time.) Neither of those qualify me as an expert, just someone with some experience that may–or may not–be helpful. And I would like to say that I take my advice daily, but I can’t. I study the scriptures quite regularly, and sometimes that becomes meditation as well. I still plan on doing the other kind of meditation sometimes because it did make me feel better. But that continues only to be a plan.

Faulconer’s weak advice about meditation

I think of meditation in two ways, as deep pondering and as a practice in which a person makes herself open to the whisperings of the Spirit. The latter, which I will call “open meditation,” is something in which there has been renewed interest in recent years, as Christians have encountered Eastern religious meditative practices, but it is not foreign to the Orthodox and Catholic Christian traditions. There is considerable overlap between these two, so let me begin by saying something about what they have in common and then describe each briefly.

1. As far as I can tell, all who teach meditation recommend as preparation what Christians call “mortification of the flesh,” in other words, self-discipline. Sometimes this means moderate exercise before meditation. It certainly includes moderation in eating and drinking. As a rule, it is best not to be hungry or thirsty before meditating, nor overfull. However, many see fasting as a way to prepare for meditation, as another kind of mortification. If you meditate when fasting, however, I don’t think you can do so effectively while you are feeling hunger pangs. The point of self-discipline is that you can’t meditate well if you are thinking about your body.

2. Meditation is a bodily as well as a mental exercise, so bodily position is important. Most meditate sitting, but being comfortable and alert is the most important thing. Wear loose fitting clothing and find a place where the temperature or noise won’t distract you, and where there also won’t be visual distractions. If your meditation is going to be done by studying scripture, sitting in a good desk chair at a desk or table of comfortable height is essential, as is having good reading light. If you are doing open meditation, the lighting should be neither too bright nor too low. As with everything else about the setting for your meditation, it ought not to be a distraction. Some use music to meditate by, but the same rule applies: it must not be a distraction.

3. Prepare for meditation with prayer. Focus on praying sincerely and meaningfully. Roger Keller (of BYU’s religion faculty) said this week that some Christians use the acronym “ACTS” to help them understand the order of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. That acronym has helped me think about my prayers in a new way.

4.a. Though the preparation for meditation is the same in each case, they differ after that. Consider deep pondering first.

4.a.1. Read a passage, usually from scripture, though other books that you find spiritually inspiring may also be appropriate. Read it aloud slowly, perhaps several times. As you read concentrate on the words you are saying to the exclusion of everything else.

4.a.2. After reading, reflect on that passage by asking questions. You may ask about specifics as a way to open the passage up to you in a new way. Some of the questions I pose in the materials for Sunday School are the kinds of questions I might ask. You may ask questions about what this teaches about the gospel. Or you may ask questions like “Does this imply anything about my daily life?” or “What does this teach me about who I ought to be?” The important thing is that you ask your question rather than someone else’s.

4.a.3. Don’t rush the questions or insist on answers to them. Allow them to hang in your mind as questions, waiting for insight. Some of the techniques for open meditation, such as 4.b.3 below, may be helpful at this point, or you may just repeat the questions slowly in your mind. If your meditation session ends without answers to your questions, don’t be concerned. Meditation is the point, not answers. Answers will come in their own time.

4.b. Now consider what I am calling “open meditation,” in which the goal is not to think deeply about something or other, but not to think, to empty your own mind and will so that the Spirit can fill it. There are lots of methods for doing this, across all major religions. Many, however, involve focusing on breathing as a means to empty the mind. Here’s what I’ve done.

4.b.1. Begin breathing deeply and slowly. For the first few minutes, as you breathe, repeat the same nonsense phrase–some recommend “so – hum” or the Indian mantra “om.” I tried “in – out,” but it wasn’t as effective for me, I think because it continues to have meaning, describing my breathing. The point is that whatever you choose should have no meaning because that will help you stop thinking meanings. Say the first half of the phrase as you breathe in and the second half as you breathe out. (If you use “Om,” say “o” as you breath in and “m” as you breath out.) Try to fill your lungs completely when you breathe in, relaxing the diaphragm completely when you breathe out.

4.b.2. After a minute or two, the actual meditation begins when you substitute something meaningful for the nonsense phrase, such as a short prayer or a short passage of scripture.

4.b.3. As you repeat that prayer or scripture, listen to yourself saying it. Do not try to think anything; if thoughts and images come—and especially in the beginning they will—just refocus on your prayer or scripture.

4.b.4. Some people, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, substitute an image of some kind for the prayer or phrase. I think that is more difficult to do since, if you use a picture or other image, it is more difficult to remain concentrated on the picture without having your mind wander to other things. Other people use music not only as background to their meditation, something to help keep out other noises, but as the focus of their meditations. I have the same difficulty with music that I have with images, but there are people for whom either may work well.

5. To end your meditation, return to prayer. The ACTS acronym may be helpful at this point, too, though you may wish to focus your thanksgiving and supplication on what you have learned or are beginning to learn–or on what you’ve felt.

It is difficult to do either of these kinds of meditation well in less than thirty minutes, but they can be done in that kind of time. For both it is important to have an unobtrusive way to mark the end of your session. An alarm clock will startle you and may undo some of the benefits of your meditation, but something like the quiet beep of a watch alarm may do the job well.

The biggest obstacle to meditation is, of course, finding thirty minutes in the day for it. Children who arise early and need to be ready for school make it difficult to do it in the morning, and it is difficult to meditate if you are exhausted. Sleep isn’t meditation, but it will overtake anyone who has spent the day chasing children or a job all day and then sits down in a quiet place for more than two or three minutes.

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30 Responses to Christian Meditation

  1. Shelby Ferrin on March 14, 2005 at 1:38 am

    I have come to regard meditation as an important component of my spiritual as well as mental life. I have experimented with various types of meditation — transcendental, guided, progressive relaxation, etc. — in addition to the more informal practice of striving to clear my mind so that the Spirit can speak more plainly to me. All have been useful in helping me finding peace in various forms, though I find that if I can meditate, then seek the Spirit or read or ponder, I am closer to God than if I do it the other way around. Sometimes it takes a concerted effort to draw our minds away from the worries and cares of this world to allow them to focus effectively on higher principles.

  2. Kannie on March 14, 2005 at 2:07 am

    Just a quick note before I head to bed — when we had that lesson, the “reverence => meditation/communion” relationship in particular stood out to me. And I focus on the “communion.” (I’ll probably end up blurring lines more than a drying contact lens . . .)

    Away from the technicalities, I interpret meditation/communion as, in essence, opening a channel between our souls and Heaven — the second type that you mentioned. I thought your idea that the mantra must be nonsense words to get away from semantic meaning hit a key point — we have to get away from the confines of spoken language. I’d like to look at it in that vein. It takes quiet (at least for those of us who “speak” = “get distracted” in music, too :-)) and reverence. With scripture, connections between doctrines can spring to life, and we can get a (generally wordless) sense of “the big picture” in our mind. With prayer, things — no better word comes to mind — that we cannot express with words are communicated between our souls and our Father, whether we’re so thankful we’re just radiating joy heavenward or we feel such sorrow that all we can do is kneel there and ache. Peace often comes through that wordless channel as well. (Romans 8:26 refers to this greater-than-language communion, I believe: “…the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”).

    Anyway, that was a long and rambling “quick note,” (it’s late), but I thought it might be worth depositing my $.02 — this lesson sure put a new spin on the phrase “hush up and listen” for me!

  3. danithew on March 14, 2005 at 8:40 am

    I was intrigued by this line in the David O. McKay lesson this week:

    “Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.” (page 32)

    Thanks for your thoughts Jim. This is a principle I want to ponder and think about more in my life.

  4. H. Wimmer on March 14, 2005 at 9:37 am

    Eknath Easwaran has written a book about the practice of meditation that has helped me. He recommends focusing on the words of an uplifting passage as a means of focusing thoughts inward. By doing this and conditioning our minds as an athlete conditions his body, we learn that 1) We are not just a body (an idea not foreign to Latter-Day Saints), 2) We are not just the mind (i.e. we can control our thoughts), and 3) We have divinity in us (sound familiar, anyone?). I especially liked his very practical approach about how to meditate. His website is http://www.nilgiri.org.

    I especially liked this approach because it focuses on a spiritual journey accomplished through a physical practice rather than the secular meditation we often see advocated on the newsstands.

  5. annegb on March 14, 2005 at 10:17 am

    Jim, what a good post on meditation. I read that lesson when I was picking the songs for Relief Society and that is the part that stuck with me, as well.

    While I have used many of the techniques you describe and always come off better for it, I also try to practice Brother Lawrence’s suggestions, just the practice of the presence of God as I go about my daily tasks. I don’t have to think about doing the dishes, this is really a time I can empty my mind and it works for me. I consciously make an effort to quiet my home and my mind and I receive some really good inspiration while I am making the bed or folding towels.

    Yesterday when the teacher taught the lesson, she asked for suggestions and I wanted to say that because the sisters in the room seemed stymied about finding time in their busy days, but I wasn’t in the mood to share. Probably should have, those poor girls probably put one more thing on their “to-do” list that they could have done easily while going about their day.

  6. greenfrog on March 14, 2005 at 11:16 am

    I appreciated your post, Jim.

    I have wondered on occasion whether some of the key events in the restoration may have arising as a result of more deliberate meditation practice than we may be accustomed to thinking about. I note Joseph’s description of returning to himself following the close of the First Vision, as well as some of the less canonical narratives of the time.

    I have been interested to explore meditation, myself. I began with Fr. Thomas Keating’s books and have continued with vipassana and yoga practice. I agree with you that meditation is a physical process.

  7. Edward A. Erdtsieck on March 14, 2005 at 11:55 am

    I thought President McKay’s linking of meditation and communion, although an unfamiliar term in the LDS congregation, was reflective of him as a spokesman of God. I, too, was impressed as was danithew, by the statement comparing the process of meditation as “most secret, most sacred doors” through which “we pass into the presence of the Lord.”

    In my daily study of the scriptures the words pass by my eyes and my mind, they usually are lost after a while. This is what I call “line upon line.” However, I don’t stop there. What I seek in my scripture study is to understand what I have read “precept upon precept.” Hence I have many strands of thought processes stored in my memory, i.e. my testimony. Rather than the interaction of words, with the latter I often perceive my subject matter in terms of mental pictures.

    “Communion” is an act of worship, a desire to communicate with God. The Holy Ghost is the connection to bring us further knowledge. I see meditation as opportunities, much like this blog, to satisfy intellectual curiousities. I have learned that reading words adds little, but seeing in it as concepts in context of a plan prepared before the foundation of the world is revealing.

    It has given insight into the beliefs of non-LDS people. For a year now, I have Jehovah Witness misionaries visit me. They come voluntarily to my home every month. I am now beginning the 3rd pair. I welcome them and we talk about Jesus Christ. They are often eager to proof a point with a scripture quote, but I ignore it. Our discussions are always very pleasant and we have much in agreement.

    We always seem to get to Adam. They do not think highly of him and basically blame him for the mess the world is in. They are ready with their quotes to support their point of view, which I ignore. There is enough in the Old Testament to perceptually show that Adam was not the bad guy they had been taught and that Jesus Christ whom they love was with him during the painful start of the human family.

    They do not dispute during this discussion, but I belief they have an uncomfortable appreciation that they know little about the father Adam. After the first pair did not return, I thought that was it, but as you see I have the 3rd pair coming prepare to ponder the importance of the role of Adam in Jesus’s plan.

    The meditation – communion linkage is a two way street. It means you can reach the place you want to visit and return and if needed you can visit it again or try out a different way. It is a intellectual process to gain wisdom. The “line upon line” is not a meditation – communion linkage, it is like building your house on sand and with the first storm it falls apart. Then what.

    Seeing and vision, through the minds eye, are very much the foundation of the Plan of Salvation and also of our Church. The Apostle Paul’s and also many of our prophet’s definition of FAITH reflects it. This was an important factor in my desire to become a Church member.

    eduard

  8. Clark on March 14, 2005 at 12:35 pm

    Excelllent post Jim.

    I taught that lesson a few weeks ago and likewise noticed the revelation/meditation connection. The example I gave was a personal challenge I had in my early 20′s of praying and staying focused. I think it’s just the nature of my mind, but while praying my mind would frequently wander off on tangents related to what I was praying about. It really was a difficulty to actually “finish” a prayer in a focused way.

    While I came upon the technique long before I heard Pres. McKay’s words, I really found that learning how to not think was an important skill. Further when I found how to do it my prayers were much more fulfilling and I found myself able to discern answers for prayers.

    Unfortunately people being what they are (or me being who I am) it is a lesson I have to learn over and over again. I’ve particularly noticed of late that the quality of my prayers has degraded to an alarming point.

    I used to do zazen meditation as part of an Aikido class I used to attend. I’ve pretty well decided that as part of a “spring resolution” to do that, along with stretching exercises and calensthetics every morning.

  9. J. Stapley on March 14, 2005 at 1:06 pm

    Great post Jim. I am struck by how many of the “great” revelations we enjoy stem from what could be considered revelation:

    Joseph’s and Martin’s vision of the lord in Sec. 76 was preceded by:

    19 And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.

    Section 138:

    1 ON the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures;

    2 And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world…

    And Nephi’s great vision (1 Ne 11):

    1 FOR it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat pondering in mine heart I was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord…

    I simply don’t make the time to meditate like I should. I realize that it is not as good as it could be, but I’ve found that simply turning of radio during my commute can often be a step in the right direction.

  10. Clark Goble on March 14, 2005 at 1:12 pm

    I assume you mean “stem from what could be considered meditation” (grin)

    But I agree. I think it is a part of our religion we don’t focus on enough. Providing a clearing in our thoughts where revelation can enter in. Or to use Alma’s language, a clearing where we can plant seeds and watch them grow.

  11. Christian Y. Cardall on March 14, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    Jim, thanks for a fascinating post. I suspect much of what you describe is terra incognita for many (if not most) Latter-day Saints. I have a couple of questions from this base of unfamiliarity:

    1. Are such practices necessary to personal revelation? If so, why haven’t our leaders taught us more about it?

    2. Do believers in other traditions, or even atheists, get just as much out of the kinds of meditation you describe as Latter-day Saints? What special perogatives to Latter-day Saints have in this area? (I guess I’m wondering what the significance of the adjective “Christian” in your title is—or what the significance would be if it were replaced by “Mormon”.)

  12. J. Stapley on March 14, 2005 at 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the correction Clark.

  13. UKAnn on March 14, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    Annegb – thanks for your post. I too ‘meditate’ whilst doing chores at home. It has been amazing to me how much inspiration I’ve received whilst vacuuming, etc, and meditating on problems, people, etc. Though the hands may be busy, the mind is filled.

  14. Jim F on March 14, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    Christian Y. Cardall: Are such practices necessary to personal revelation? If so, why haven’t our leaders taught us more about it?

    I don’t think they are. I received a personal revelation that brought me into the Church, and it didn’t come as the result of meditation. However, though I don’t think meditation is necessary to revelation, I do think it has helped me receive revelation. And, I think it has especially been helpful to me for seeing the world through spiritual eyes. Not that I always do, by any means, but I think I do see it that way more often when I’ve been meditating than when I’ve not.

    2. Do believers in other traditions, or even atheists, get just as much out of the kinds of meditation you describe as Latter-day Saints? What special perogatives to Latter-day Saints have in this area? (I guess I’m wondering what the significance of the adjective “Christian” in your title is—or what the significance would be if it were replaced by “Mormon”.)

    I don’t really know what others get out of meditation, but there is, I think, considerable evidence that they get a great deal. Do we have special perogatives? I would say, not from meditaiton per se, but we do have them because we have the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    What do make of the significance of my use of the adjective “Christian” rather than “Mormon”? Not too much. Mostly that I prefer to use the first adjective when possible because I very much dislike it when people speak of Mormons and Christians as if they were distinct groups. We ought not to shy away from describing what we do as Christian, especially if it isn’t unique to us as Mormon Christians.

  15. Shelby Ferrin on March 14, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    As a partial answer to whether non-members benefit from meditation, there is considerable evidence pointing to the mental and physical health benefits of meditation, though these are not necessarily related in any way to what we are discussing as using meditation to open our hearts and minds to revelation. In particular, those who meditate regularly have lower stress and lower rates of stress-related illnesses such as coronary heart disease. They also tend to react more quickly and effectively to a variety of situations. Their sleep cycles tend to contain longer periods of REM sleep. There are a number of other benefits that have been shown as well, which I’m sure we could discuss if interest warrants it, though I think this thread is really about how meditation can be used as a spiritual practice.

  16. Christian Y. Cardall on March 14, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    Jim and Shelby, thanks for your responses. I’m not so much interested in the Mormon/Christian distinction as in the Christian/non-Christian and religious/non-religious distinctions.

    I guess this is the nub of my questions: The benefits of meditation you’ve cited, which apparently accrue to any and all, might be taken by unbelievers as evidence that the benefits of prayer are not responses by God (especially the “right” god), but simply the natural benefits of meditation. People may benefit from prayer not because their god is really listening and answering, but only naturalistically, to the extent that prayer happens to resemble meditation, with resulting natural physiological effects (with the “emotional” and “spritual” reduced to physiological processes as well). As people who have experienced the range of phenomena in play here, what distinctions can you draw that would shoot down this hypothesis?

  17. Kingsley on March 14, 2005 at 4:38 pm

    If I pray precisely for X & receive precisely X, it becomes difficult to interpret the phenomenon as a wholly naturalistic one. I have no problem believing that an Intelligent Designer would hardwire us so that proper prayer resulted in lovely, calming, “natural physiological effects.” Sometimes, however, you get far more dramatic (even miraculous) results that seem to differ from the commoner meditative experiences.

  18. Clark on March 14, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    Christian I think for many classes of phenomena we can’t distinguish between what was God and what was “natural.” Beyond just the placebo effect there is the fact that many illnesses naturally clear up, there are always natural and spontaneously surprising reversals of medical conditions, and the brain is wired to be spiritual in certain ways. If our goal is a way to publicly determine which is which, then I suspect we can’t. Further I’m not sure merely showing something is natural entails that we ought not thank God for it. After all we have our bodies on behave of him. (Not that you are saying that – I’m more just thinking about being thankful for something that may be a placebo result)

    With respect to meditation I think the issue is ultimately one of content. Joseph critiqued early Christian “charismatic” experiences by asking whether intelligence was conveyed. Now even there one can’t always distinguish revelation from God from subconscious thinking that breaks forth into the conscious mind. But I think that most of us, as we try to live the gospel and be spiritual come to recognize the hand of God via intelligence. Often its subtle, but discernible and more discernible when we lose it.

    To me the primary benefits of meditation are natural. Learning how to not think is inherently useful. Likewise learning to truly relax is inherently useful. I don’t think we have to say it is some miracle of God. But then I think other things God offers us are inherently useful as well. (i.e. keeping away for addicted substances like alcohol, heroin, cocaine etc.)

    I also think that this utility will affect our ability to feel and recognize the spirit. But lots of natural practices will as well. Self-control is inherently useful and affects our spiritual lives as much as it does our ability to have a clean house and a fit body. Not being angry or hateful has natural effects as well. I think in a way most of the gospel has pragmatic natural consequences that are beneficial if we take hold of them. (I’m not sure we as a people do, however)

  19. Christian Y. Cardall on March 14, 2005 at 6:19 pm

    Kinglsey: If I pray precisely for X & receive precisely X, it becomes difficult to interpret the phenomenon as a wholly naturalistic one.

    Osama et al. prayed for the “successful” outcome of 9/11; their prayers were “answered.” The problem is that “good” and “bad” coincidences probably happen with roughly equal frequency to both the “righteous” and the “wicked” (as Jesus notes in the the Sermon on the Mount), once the basic natural consequences of living an orderly life are subtracted out. We chalk up the “successes” to God’s miraculous intervention, and the “failures” to our asking amiss or a “needed” trial. There’s always an answer for whichever way things go. But if everything is explained, then nothing is explained; there’s no falsifiability.

    Clark: Christian I think for many classes of phenomena we can’t distinguish between what was God and what was “natural.” … If our goal is a way to publicly determine which is which, then I suspect we can’t.

    I would settle for definitive private determinations if that were possible, but without external reference points it seems impossible to judge. To the extent that things are difficult to distinguish from “natural”, why invoke the God hypothesis?

    The criterion of intelligence conveyed is an interesting slant, but here again you have the problem of distinguishability, for surely man has some innate faculties. Who’s to know where that brilliant idea came from? The Greeks, marveling at their artistic works, invented muses to explain it; how do we know the Holy Ghost is not a similar invention?

  20. MaryW on March 14, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    I agree with annegb and ukAnn – while hands are busy minds and hearts can open and expend. The old Shakers said it like this “hands to work, hearts to God.” I am addicted to knitting and find it to be a meditative and spiritual practice many times. When I knit for a loved one, my thoughts are focused on that person and I find prayers, wishes, insights, and love woven into the stiches. I also do much charity knitting – where I do not know the person, but I know something of the situation, i.e. knitting chemo caps to cover the bald heads of kids getting chemotherapy. In those times, prayers and pondering about the lives of unknown brothers and sisters can lead to spiritual feelings and an increase in the “pure love of Christ” which comes as a gift from God. Just last night, while knitting on a sweater for a loved little girl in my ward, I found myself focused on children, how they learn, what their spiritual gifts are like, how their faith is pure. Perhaps, not the same kind of experience found in the “open meditation” described by Jim, but definite an expanding of the mind and soul through pondering, straining out extraneous thoughts, and focusing. I have recently begun to learn yoga and wonder what I will find in that practice that compliments and enlarges my “bred in the bones” Mormon sensibility and spirituality.

  21. Jim F on March 14, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    Christian Y. Cardall: I have no problem with the idea that God answers non-Mormon prayers, so I also have no problem with the idea that God blesses non-Mormon meditation not only with whatever physical benefits there may be, but also with spiritual benefits. I think that the First Presidency statement that the great philosophers and religious leaders were inspired by God backs up that thinking.

    But I may not understand your question. Are you asking how one can distinguish between true revelation and false? How we can distinguish between what the Holy Ghost inspires and what is merely our own invention? In either case, if there were a cut-and-dry rational answer to your question, then the “problem” of the multiplicity of religions and religious experiences would have long ago been solved.

  22. Christian Y. Cardall on March 15, 2005 at 12:18 am

    Jim, yes, at the end you’ve distilled the questions that trouble me. I surrender, for tonight at least, in the face of these cosmic imponderables. ;)

  23. Jim F. on March 15, 2005 at 2:08 am

    It is far too complicated a discussion to try to deal with in the length of a response or even in a long post, but the problem is only a problem from outside. I have to place myself outside of my religious experience, at least in principle, in order to ask the question. Inside, it doesn’t occur. Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem either. After all, there are very good reasons for placing myself outside of my beliefs sometimes. But it shows that the problem is to be found in an incompatibility between two different ways of being in the world.

    There may be, in principle, no resolution to those kinds of incompatibility. Part of what it means to be a human being is to live in multiple worlds that are incommensurable to thought. On my understanding, the one great whole of the gospel is the great whole of a living human being, not the whole of a rational, theoretical, or systematic understanding. What is incommensurable in thought can be commensurable in a lived life, and what is imponderable–too heavy for thought to carry–may be livable and lightly so. We are, after all, embodied beings and not accidentally so. So, we ought not to expect the unity of our lives to be found only in consciousness, in one aspect of our embodiment, something that annegb, UKAnne, and Mary W have pointed out.

  24. Frank McIntyre on March 15, 2005 at 11:44 am

    Christian, I used to think that answers to prayer were like the formulation you use, an internal phenomenon we observe (such as a burning) and then rationally decide that it represents (or doesn’t) an answer to prayer.

    While I think this does happen, I don’t think it is the end-all of faith. There is a faith that is simply a gift of God, granted through the grace of God in response to obedience and prayer. It is, in some sense, an emotion or spiritual response, rather than an intellectual process. It replaces the emotional doubt. It is not a knowledge, but it is the “assurance of things…not seen”. Thus it is a replacement for evidence, internal or external.

  25. Floyd the Wonderdog on March 15, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    Jim’s technique sounds quite a bit like lectio divina. A member of our Stake Presidency went to an inter-faith council retreat, where he learned this technique. The Stake President asked him to teach it to the High Council. The steps are reading/listening, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

  26. Christian Y. Cardall on March 15, 2005 at 2:57 pm

    Jim, many thanks for your longsuffering engagement of what became a threadjack (even if my initial comments were related to your post). I agree it’s a complicated matter, and I won’t doggedly pursue it here, but I did want to say a couple of last things.

    …the problem is only a problem from outside.

    I agree, but I worry about a statement by a character in one of Rushdie’s novels: “The only people who see the picture are those who step outside the frame.” Of course, as you taught us in a guest lecture in a Physics Department science/religion seminar a dozen years ago, one is always within some frame. (Don’t know how accurate it is, but my memory is of you wearing an olive suit with Birkenstocks in that lecture, with longer-than-average hair for BYU, and talking about Levinas on his deathbead, in addition to clearing postmodernism of the bad rap it had gotten from some in the administration in those years. I remember thinking, I’ll bet he’s a Democrat! I’m still a Republican, but I did get a pair of Birkenstocks the in the next year or so.)

    On my understanding, the one great whole of the gospel is the great whole of a living human being, not the whole of a rational, theoretical, or systematic understanding. What is incommensurable in thought can be commensurable in a lived life, and what is imponderable–too heavy for thought to carry–may be livable and lightly so.

    Where my feelings rebel here is that, as in the soap opera title, we have only one life to live, which makes me question the feasibility of this putative mortal probation. There simply isn’t time to “try on” and live in depth the innumerable approches to faith (and lack thereof) to the extent that would be required to experience them in the manner you describe, in order to judge among them. Hence the strategy of searching for rational understandings, as a kind of shortcut enabling one to try and place the smartest bet one can on how to live one’s life.

    In this matter the gospel’s requirement of “worthiness” as a prerequisite to knowledge is an important fulcrum. Other sects and traditions have similar requirements; it was also part of the alchemists’ search for knowledge, maybe a more general perspective of the Renaissance, and perhaps nearly universal before the Enlightenment’s rejection of it with the rise of modern science? The thing about such “worthiness” requirements is that they keep one’s “lived life” firmly within one perspective, and create a high opportunity cost for obtaining the kind of experiential knowledge you’ve extolled. The placing of a premium upon it raises red flags as to whether it’s simply a particularly effective mechanism of social control. So I have trouble deciding whether “keeping the commandments”—that oft-invoked requirement for testimony—is the Grand Key of Enlightenment, or an instance of Insidious Shackles of Ignorance.

  27. Christian Y. Cardall on March 15, 2005 at 3:09 pm

    Frank, yes, I guess I have thought of spiritual experiences as a kind of “evidence.” The different kind of assurance you describe reminds me of Elder McConkie writing that he was born with a testimony, with doubt as foreign to him as the gibberish of foreign tongues, and also his speaking of a ‘talent for spirituality.’ You mention it coming as a result of obedience; as I mentioned to Jim, this makes me wonder if this kind of assurance in the absence of evidence is socialization, pure and simple.

    Of course, it could be that socialization is the whole point—discovering who wants to seek out, join, and stay in Zion.

  28. diogenes on March 15, 2005 at 9:14 pm

    I am reminded of a temple open house a few years ago, to which we took our Buddhist neighbors. When we reached the Celestial Room, and explained a bit about it, the mother of the family in turn explained to her children, “It’s a meditation room,” at which point they all five plopped down and began to do so. I’ve been tempted to do the same on a number of occasions since, but can’t quite get my legs into the lotus position.

  29. Jim F. on March 16, 2005 at 12:09 am

    Christian Y. Cardall: There simply isn’t time to “try on” and live in depth the innumerable approches to faith (and lack thereof) to the extent that would be required to experience them in the manner you describe, in order to judge among them. Hence the strategy of searching for rational understandings, as a kind of shortcut enabling one to try and place the smartest bet one can on how to live one’s life.

    But reason isn’t some something that is outside of all frames, so it also isn’t a sure guide. I don’t think that reason is “just another” framework, but it isn’t as reliable a shortcut as your remark (almost certainly too short to say what you’re thinking) suggests because it cannot be untied completely from frames.

    Reason is certainly relevant to thinking about religious experience, but it isn’t enough–and you’re right, we don’t have time to try out all of the putative faith systems and weigh them, one against the other. So, to mix metaphors, it seems to me that the only option is to play the hand you are dealt (which includes the possibility of conversion–a possible card).

    I’ve been dealt the hand of growing up in a Christian culture in a church-going family, hearing the gospel as a teenager, and having a powerful spiritual experience that gave me a testimony. No rational analysis can show that to be the best or only choice. Nor can it show that the experience I had was more than some odd psychological phenomenon. (Indeed, I think that there are multiple explanations for probably every phenomenon, and that more than one explanation–though not every one–can be true, another long and complicated issue.) But joining the Church was, indeed, my only choice. I’m not denying that in some technical sense I could have refused to accept the revelation I received. But in a very real sense I couldn’t. Having received a testimony, I couldn’t do anything but join the Church. So I live with my history knowing that other histories were possible and that other people have very different histories. I think that is part of what it means to have faith, to trust that what makes sense in a lived live, even if it doesn’t make complete rational sense, is right, that God will accept what I have done, just as I trust that he will accept what my Buddhist friends have done and, if we Mormons are right, offer them the opportunity for more.

    Christian, you need to read some existential Christians–Kierkegaard is a good place to start, but there are a lot of them. (As the link to Mark Wrathall on the side bar shows, there are even existential Christian rockers).

    As for the olive suit, Birks, and longish hair: Since I’ve not bought a new suit that wasn’t blue in a long time, I probably still wear the suit you are talking about, though the one I’m thinking of is tan rather than olive. When I must wear shoes, I still wear Birks, though I have also found a pair of slip-ons that I like. I still don’t get a haircut as often as I should. My failure to get haircuts isn’t a statement of some kind, just something that is too much trouble and, so, gets continually put off. And, I confess, I am a Democrat. I dont’ think there is any connection between the last of this list and the items that came before, but you never know.

  30. Christian Cardall on March 17, 2005 at 9:12 am

    Jim, sorry for the delayed response, yesterday was extra-busy.

    “I don’t think that reason is “just another” framework, but it isn’t as reliable a shortcut as your remark (almost certainly too short to say what you’re thinking) suggests because it cannot be untied completely from frames.

    You’re right, I didn’t make myself clear. I didn’t mean to express absolute conviction that Reason (coupled with Sensible Evidence) is the one and only path to The Truth. I just meant to explain that reason is what some (like me) turn to in a desperate effort to escape confusion, a grasping reach for some modestly reliable handhold—which, I recognize, in the end may or may not “hold.”

    And in case the motivation of my recitation of details remembered was also unclear, let me state clearly that I meant to convey warm appreciation and admiration. Here was somebody getting beyond surface orthodoxies to substantial, weighty matters: Principally (in that lecture) conveying the value of the unfairly maligned ideas of postmodernism, but also exemplified in the recognition that the important thing about shoes is comfort, and that there are things more worthy of time and attention than a fastidious adherence to a rather arbitrary requirement of keeping one’s hair above one’s ear.

    Thanks for your honest wisdom about what faith entails! I don’t know if Elder Ballard would consider it “pure testimony”; but for me, its refreshing modesty makes it more real, more true to what seem to me to be the limiting realities of our perceptions of the world, than the usual recitations. This true-to-lifeness makes it one of the most compelling “testimonies” I’ve encountered. (Maybe that’s partly because I haven’t read the Christian existentialists you suggest; I’ll work on that.)

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.