Reading in the Sand

June 14, 2005 | 52 comments
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The first thing you need to know about what happened is that it’s not about doubt. This is not the story of how I lost my testimony. I’m as committed to the church and as convinced of the reality of the restoration now as I was before what happened on Friday night. This is a story about reading, and how to do it.

The second thing you need to know is that it’s been raining here, hard. After a dry winter and spring, the gulf stream has finally dispatched some juicy warm weather to the midwest, and it’s stormed in St. Louis four days out of the last six. We have a brick patio behind our house, put in by the previous owner, and when it rains the runoff pools in the far corner. Sometime on Friday afternoon when the clouds had cleared for the day, I noticed that the far corner looked a little peculiar. A few steps showed that six or eight bricks in that corner had collapsed into the foundation of the patio—a foundation, I discovered, made of sand built up within a retaining border of heavy landscaping blocks. Whenever the water pooled in that corner, I realized, it must have carried some of the sand with it as it drained out between the blocks; sure enough, a little pile of sand winked up at me from the foot of the wall below. It’s not such a big deal, I’m hoping; we’ll buy more sand, try to build it up a little higher so the water won’t pool there but will cascade down the steps instead, and all will be well.

But it was on my mind that night as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. I was thinking about that patio, and the sand beneath it. I was also thinking, in the motley way one thinks at that hour, of the post I’d put up earlier in the week, about how Joseph and Oliver might have understood revelation, how it might have come to them. My mind drifted in and around this dim cul de sac until, in an acute flare of clarity, I thought, “Joseph built the church on a foundation of revelation, but that foundation is of sand, and it will collapse.” The thought, its rushing intrusion and its plainness, literally opened my eyes, and I lay in bed, fully awake, wondering what had happened.

Let me reiterate here what didn’t happen: I didn’t lose my faith. I’ve had too many other spiritual affirmations of my relationship with God and the reality of the restoration to consider abandoning those convictions in a moment, no matter how flaring or clear. That’s not what I wondered about, at least not for more than a minute or two. What I did wonder about, and what, later, I prayed about, was the source of the thought: it was wrong, and rather unsubtly so; I believed that then and I believe it now, but where did it come from?

I’ve been accustomed to understanding that sort of experience—the lucid minute, the intruding insight, the stereoscopic layering of different angles of information to yield an added dimension of meaning—as one of the languages of the Spirit. I don’t think I’m alone in this: Adam’s recent post, for example, turns on just such a moment in which two dissimilar, apparently random events converge to release, in a moment of discernment, an added meaning. It’s a kind of reading, really, a way of combining and decoding bits of lived information—sort of experiential morphemes, if you like—to apprehend a narrative or a proposition. And I’ve always attributed the story or the answer or the idea that I read in those moments to the Spirit.

What happened Friday night, however, cognate in nearly every way to a dozen other such flashes that I’ve shelved with “spiritual experiences” in my mental library, has generated something of an authorship controversy for me. Temperament and habit incline me to understand the experience, if not from the Spirit, as a random neurological event, the firing of certain synapses in certain neural networks to produce the sensation of transcendence, akin to that familiar feeling of deja vu that produces the biochemical illusion of reliving a moment profoundly significant in its repetition. The “eureka moment,” a burst of focus and clarity that feels, somehow, portentous, has a long tradition in intellectual historiography—long enough that one may suspect there’s a molecular mechanism behind it. The human brain, after all, is hardwired to string disparate bits of information together into a continuous narrative; this may be, in fact, the sine qua non of consciousness. Can you make out the face in this photo? If you can, then you’ve just proved you’re human: you’ve made meaning by interpreting random information into a coherent image. If what I experienced was merely a natural neurological event, then it has nothing to say about the reality of the restoration one way or the other; it does require me to reconsider my readings of similar moments in the past, but because my testimony is based primarily on other sorts of communication from the Spirit, it needn’t shake my faith.

But perhaps the thought did have a supernatural origin; it certainly felt like it did, with its lightning speed and shock. Perhaps it was a temptation from Satan, a falsehood disguised as revelation and spirited into the recesses of my mind. Though I’ve never been clear on how, precisely, Satan gains access to our thoughts, he does seem capable of feeding false revelation to credulous souls; D&C 50 suggests that false spirits can replicate revelation for evil purposes. The epistemological problems this suggests are troubling, if not confounding, but at least this explanation has the virtue of explaining the supernatural feeling of the thought in a way that fits plausibly with my larger structure of belief. But that’s also the primary problem with this explanation: if I reject all suggestions that seem to run counter to my existing beliefs, and accept only those that accord with those beliefs, then this sort of personal revelation really isn’t capable of conveying new information. That is, personal revelation isn’t what we say it is—the free-standing foundation of belief—nor does it do what we say it does—transmit new information from God to human.

Maybe the thought did come from God, as a kind of test of faith, to see how quickly I would reject it. Or maybe it came from God as a straightforward communication—one must at least consider this possibility—but if it did, it was unsuccessful in refuting previous spiritual experiences that have, for me, confirmed the reality of restored revelatory authority. Neither of these possibilities makes much sense to me, spiritually or rationally, and each renders the possibility of personal revelation so qualified that it hardly persists as a coherent category.

In the end, this experience may only confirm something I’ve already thought about a little bit: personal religious experiences are not self-authenticating, irreducible, or epistemologically independent. I can’t know what happened on Friday night without recourse to some other, external kind of knowledge. Religious experiences require, in order to be read and interpreted, the shared epistemic language of social practice; they need, if they are to yield their meaning, to be read with the socially mediated lexicon of shared belief and, yes, institutional authority. In this way, as in so many others, religious experience—and Mormon experience in particular—works to bind individuals to groups, to make of the atomized individual the social whole.

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52 Responses to Reading in the Sand

  1. Daniel on June 14, 2005 at 9:14 am

    Rosalynde,
    You and I have, I think, disagreed about this before, and I have thought of it many times since, though perhaps our disagreement is nothing more than my failure to understand your meaning. Let me clarify as hopefully a prod to get you to define what you mean more specifically: I take umbrage at this statement:

    “personal religious experiences are not self-authenticating, irreducible, or epistemologically independent.”

    On one level, I agree that if you include the Spirit in the “some other, external kind of knowledge” category that you mention, then we do need an external source to interpret spiritual experiences. However, if you are implying that we need other people to know that we have had a witness from the Spirit, then I disagree. While that may be true of the vast majority of spiritual experiences (because God answers prayers on the lowest level possible, and, therefore, through the people and situations closest to us), there are some transcendent, ethereal, spiritual experiences that cannot be cabined by human wisdom, human understanding, or human language (given that our language is corrupted and therefore incapable of accurately describing or recording completely our spiritual promptings, i.e., Pearl of Great Price) or even described to others accurately without the influence of the Spirit to carry it to their hearts and convey the meaning that our words can’t. We simply KNOW after having those experiences, in a way that cannot be done justice by our corrupted language and shared social constructs, just as Joseph Smith knew he had seen God and Jesus Christ, and believed, in spite of “the shared epistemic language of social practice.”

    I do not think, however, that this kind of transcendent spiritual experience is the run-of-the-mill revelation that we receive daily, so if your statement above refers only to those everyday promptings, I think that, for the most part, I agree with you. Generally speaking, those kind of transcendent spiritual experiences where no outside help beyond that of the personal relationship between the Savior and the individual is necessary are reserved as answers to the fundamental questions of the gospel.

    “I can’t know what happened on Friday night without recourse to some other, external kind of knowledge.” Can’t we though? Can’t we know the truth of all things by turning to the Holy Ghost? It sounds like you are saying that we need to turn to someone besides God to understand whether something comes from God. My understanding was that this was the promise of the Gift of the Holy Ghost received at confirmation. I’m probably misunderstanding you here, so please help me understand what you mean. “Religious experiences require, in order to be read and interpreted, the shared epistemic language of social practice; they need, if they are to yield their meaning, to be read with the socially mediated lexicon of shared belief and, yes, institutional authority.” This statement seems to cut against everything I have ever believed about the Holy Ghost and its power to teach us the truth. Indeed, 2 Nephi promises us that the words of Christ will tell us all things that we should do. I don’t think that we need any other outside system to teach us the truth — else how do you account for Moroni’s sole defense of the truth, or Abinadi’s faithful stance in spite of all external impetus to the contrary? My guess is that I simply don’t understand what you are trying to say here and that the misunderstanding is my fault. However, as I read your words here now, it seems that by turning to others to help us interpret the spiritual experiences we have, rather than to the source of those feelings, we are liable to become more confused, not less.

    I am not saying that it is easy to understand which promptings are from God and which are from our own minds, the adversary, hormones, chemical activity in our brains, etc. Indeed, I think it is one of the most difficult challenges of the gospel — but that doesn’t mean that we are under any less of an injunction to treasure up oil in our lamps by learning and progressing forwards until we recognize instantly and readily the source of inspiration. I believe that perhaps we have those experiences because God is beckoning to us to step tentatively out onto that bridge of faith to learn to trust Him above all other influences. When we can do that, we can become as Abraham, whose confidence that a feeling he had was from God was so strong, that he was ready and willing to offer up his only son, the only apparent means by which the covenants from that same God might be fulfilled. Isn’t God really trying to get us to develop personal relationships with Him? Each of us. Individually. Atomistically. In the end, though I find the kinship you express that binds us together moving and poetic and containing truth, it seems that we are ultimately bound together by our shared individual relationships to the same God and Creator — in other words, we are bound together by the fact that we all have personal relationships with the same Savior and His gospel. Otherwise, we are little different from other churches who have love for each other but can deviate from truth because they are bound to each other — imperfect humans– rather to the One perfect One.

    I’m guessing that this is my misunderstanding here, so if so, thanks in advance for helping me understand your meaning.

  2. Larry on June 14, 2005 at 9:41 am

    Excellent post. This is an area where some live their lives. They never question where the thought, or supposed answer to their prayer, comes from , and then spend their lives wondering why nothing goes right.
    Is it possible to think too deeply?
    For instance you say:
    “Maybe the thought did come from God, as a kind of test of faith, to see how quickly I would reject it. Or maybe it came from God as a straightforward communication—one must at least consider this possibility—but if it did, it was unsuccessful in refuting previous spiritual experiences that have, for me, confirmed the reality of restored revelatory authority”
    You reject this statement, but you indicate that it must be considered a possibility.

    My question would be why?
    Just because a person has a religious thought, does that make it valid or worthy of deep consideration, regardless of the feelings or epiphany that accompany it?

    Or could it be that we carry memory from the pre-earth existence, that permeate the veil over our mind, of things Terrestrial or Telestial, (as well as Celestial) that carry an appearance of truth, but, in the end, do not approach the way things really are?

    We are to ponder the deep things, according to the Prophet Joseph, but it would seem to carry a consistent pattern with it. The Holy Ghost is the messenger and He can’t be duplicated, in either feelings or epiphanies, based on my experience, and I have had both on occasion in my life.

  3. J. Stapley on June 14, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Joseph built the church on a foundation of revelation, but that foundation is of sand, and it will collapse.

    Perhaps, in retrospect you will see that it was not incorrect. I’m not suggesting that your current testimony is false, nor do I challenge the current authority of God within the Church.

    Simply, I know someone who has certain gifts of the spirit and often the revelations she received were misinterpreted at the moment of their delivery, only to be clarified in their fulfillment. She hated it, and I don’t know that she ever fully came to terms with it.

  4. greenfrog on June 14, 2005 at 11:06 am

    Years ago, as a recently returned missionary, I was driving home from a long day at work. I happened to pass a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and I had the same sort of impression to stop and go in that I had had several times as a missionary, each of which led to inspired teaching experiences.

    But this was a Kingdom Hall. So I drove on.

    The impression returned. I finally stopped, turned around, and drove into the parking lot, which was half filled with cars. I opened the front door and entered. There was some kind of worship service underway. I entered the chapel (or chapel equivalent — I’m not conversant with the appropriate terminology), and sat in a chair next to a woman. The congregation was singing a hymn. The woman next to me shared her hymnal with me. I sight-sang the unfamiliar hymn. The service proceeded, and I felt no guidance at all. Eventually, I thanked quietly the woman next to me, got up, and left, more confused than I’d ever been.

    I felt no more spiritual guidance as I proceeded home. But as I drove, I wondered what God was trying to tell me. Or, possibly, whether spirituality was nothing more than a brain cramp. But that conclusion seemed entirely at odds with the experiences I’d had as a missionary. I returned home that evening and spent hours reading scripture and praying, with no particular feeling of anything I’d call the Spirit of God. I considered the possibility that God was guiding me to consider joining the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group that I didn’t affirmatively disdain, but one for which I held no appeal. As I considered that, I realized how such a decision might affect my family — dyed-in-the-wool, sixth generation Mormons. I thought how it would affect me, having just returned from an LDS mission. I thought how wrenching it would be to accept such a faith. And I received no clear guidance from God about how to understand the experience.

    I reached something of a turning point that evening — I resolved to follow God to truth wherever that might lead — even to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    In retrospect now twenty-some-odd years later, I recognize that the resolution I reached that evening was mine — it was my response to the experience. There was no spiritual guidance instructing me that that was the outcome I should reach. There was no spiritual confirmation that that was the right way to understand the experience I’d had. It was, as you’ve suggested of your own experience, an inkblot to which I responded that evening. The interpretation I imposed on the text is one that has shaped my interaction with Mormonism (and Buddhism, and capitalism, and lots of other -isms) ever since. Even today, I continue to find more meaning in my response to the experience than I do in the experience itself.

    When an experience conflicts with my pre-existing beliefs, I now do my best not to reject the experience. It is, after all, quite real, whatever it may signify. Perhaps by watching, I will eventually see.

  5. Zerin Hood on June 14, 2005 at 11:31 am

    If you would just stay up late watching TV instead of thinking about stuff, you wouldn’t have to deal that kind of weirdness.

  6. M Youmans on June 14, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Having studied a little psychology, I’ve always wondered how we can distinguish between our own subjective and independent thoughts and spiritual experiences. I would venture to guess many psychologists (perhaps the vast majority) would say they are one and the same. In other words, the mind creates everything, whether conciously or not.

    Yet, I agree that I have had spiritual experiences that I feel strongly have come from sources other than my own mind. The problem is, teasing apart what is our own thinking and what could be the spirit is a complex endeavor. We tend to think revelation is a simple process. It may be so sometimes, but we can’t ignore how each mind is a filter, interpreting data and impressions according to previous knowledge and current desires. This complicates things quite a bit. Think about all the returned missionaries who have received “revelations” on proposing marriage, only to find that their would-be-betrothed just isn’t feeling the same thing.

    Rosalynde brings up a good point with respect to having outside sources act as sort of checks and balances to our own impressions and experiences. (Am I reading that right?)The thing is, what happens when the comparisons of different impressions are so conflicting that no coherent interpretation can be drawn? I think another aspect of inspiration is how our thoughts and feelings change over time. Perhaps we have to think about thoughts and impressions more than we do before we come to any sort of conclusion as to what they may mean.

  7. D. Fletcher on June 14, 2005 at 11:57 am

    I’m interested, Rosalynde, that you chose to analyze the experience of the epiphany, more than analyze the actual point of the revelation. Is it just false, or is there something to it?

  8. Daylan Darby on June 14, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    1) The human face in the picture, I believe, is our brains effort to make sense out of randomness. Our brains are extremely well developed as pattern matching machines.

    2) D&C 6:16 “Yea, I tell thee, that thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and the intents of thy heart” suggests that Satan can NOT read our thoughts.

    3) I’ve also had impressions, that I’ve followed up on, that seem to lead nowhere. The best advice I’ve heard is: Keep an ‘impression’ journal. In the journal record as much about the impression as you can, also record whether you ignored (or followed) the impression (which might occur days latter) and finally record what happened because of your actions to ignore (or follow) the impression. Occasionally go back and read your journal. The theory is you will train yourself to recognize the pattern of ‘good’ impressions.

  9. Jack on June 14, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    Rosalynde,

    This is a wonderful post!

    I’ve had an enormous struggle with this sort of thing over the last two years. For some reason, which I think I’m just begining to understand, meeting my father for the first time back in 2003 blew the lid off of my psyche. Though it’s been a very painful season in my life, a lot of good has come of it–one of the most important goods being that I have learned to recognize, to a much greater degree, what does NOT come from above. After years and years of (ignorantly) struggling to keep the effects of abuse at bay, it would seem that I finally reached a point where those psychological strategies were no longer sufficient to lead me in a way that was compatable with how I was begining to view the gospel.

    Now I’m not suggesting that you’re experiencing some kind of intense insanity, but if there’s one thing that may be useful in this discussion from my experience, it’s that sometimes we need a little thump on the head in order to make us aware of certain patterns in our thinking which, if not checked, will keep us from moving on to greater levels of spiritual sensitivity.

    Forgive me if I come across a little preachy. I really have no idea as to what you will gain from the experience which you have shared. It just seems to me that it could be time for a little stretching or adjustment in your MO in order to make room for the “new”.

  10. Jack on June 14, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    On the other hand,

    Don’t take too seriously those thoughts which appear during the twilight of sleep.

  11. Brian G on June 14, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    I’m of the opinion that your thought was a natural neurological event. I don’t think this conclusion negates any other spiritual experiences you have had that have been similar either.

    Human thought can be an incredibly random process, and frankly, if that’s the most random and seemingly inappropriate and out-of-character thought you’ve ever had, you’re pretty lucky. I get more random, scandalous, Satanic, and disturbing thoughts than that on an hourly basis. Thoughts are sometimes a bit like dreams; they just come to us, however, your experience seems to fit into the context of having a problem with the foundation of your patio and thinking about revelation late at night–maybe it wasn’t so random after all.

    The bigger issue is whether it being random and natural negates your other spiritual experiences that are similar. I believe it does not. I experience the Spirit primarily as emotion, rather than thought, so I have given much similar contemplation to whether it isn’t simply natural to feel emotion if you are for example in a testimony meeting full of people sharing touching experiences, and if therefore such emotions of warmth, compassion, and well-being aren’t just natural and not supernatural whatsoever. Such questions about emotional Spiritual experience are, I believe, analogous to your recent consideration of sudden breakthrough thoughts as spiritual experiences.

    I feel that both human thought and emotion are, for lack of a better word, media through which God often chooses to communicate to us. Like radio waves, to pick an example, sometimes you get static, sometimes you get random bits of other communications, sometimes you’re really in tune or not. Judging the source of the communication transmitted has very little to do with the nature of the medium used to send it, and much more to do with the content of the message, the timing of the message, and more often than not whether a message was requested or needed.

    And I also think that the great thinkers of the world tend to have a finely greased tuner and can spin up and down the radio dial picking up bits and pieces of transmissions from all over. They’re usually really gifted at making sense out of them too. I also think God does on occasion bang a couple of those thoughts together to send the thinking of His children in certain directions.

    None of this, of course, is very helpful, but that’s what I have to say about your post.

  12. Ben H on June 14, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    I know someone who has certain gifts of the spirit and often the revelations she received were misinterpreted at the moment of their delivery, only to be clarified in their fulfillment.

    Yow, sound like something straight out of Greek mythology! Funny thing is, I think this happens a lot. It’s happened to me. In one case I thought I knew what the guidance meant, and I sort of did, but years later I realized the full import (of this partly verbal response) was subtly different than I’d realized at the time.

    D, Rosalynde is analyzing “the actual point of the revelation”. That’s part of what makes this post so creepy and great. Look again.

  13. Christian Y. Cardall on June 14, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    but because my testimony is based primarily on other sorts of communication from the Spirit, it needn’t shake my faith.

    What are the other (presumably more reliable) sorts of communication from the Spirit?

  14. Dave on June 14, 2005 at 4:05 pm

    A fine post, Rosalynde, but if religious or mystical feelings or thoughts are not self-authenticating, I’m not sure why deferring to a peer group (“socially mediated lexicon of shared belief”) or to external authority is any more legitimate.

    This whole post raises the question of the sloppy Mormon practice of attributing bad thoughts to Satan. And we attribute spiritual, insightful, or timely thoughts to the Holy Ghost. Conscience-like thoughts in the guise of duty or guilt we attribute to the light of Christ. I assume our own conscious psyche gets to have an autonomous thought of its own now and then, as well as a few primal directives intruding from our unconscious mind from time to time. Might as well throw in a submliminal message or two at the theater to go buy popcorn and soda. Bottom line: there is such a chorus going on inside our head, how can we know (under this “spirits put thoughts in our heads” approach) the source of any of our thoughts?

  15. Richard T on June 14, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Rosalynde:

    Fascinating subject, one I’ve explored a bit in a paper I wrote that talks, in part, about the Spirit of Christ, and how it helps us discern whether a particular stimuli is good or evil “with a perfect knowledge.” Look here: http://bookofmormonthemes.blogspot.com/2005/05/charity-in-moroni-7.html. Look, in particular, under the heading “How to Judge Good from Evil.”

    After reading your post, I’d be very interested to hear your ideas on my interpretation.

  16. Jack on June 14, 2005 at 7:36 pm

    I would add, that in my experience some of the more powerful thoughts I have from time to time almost seem like old files that are being retrieved. I think the mind can replay the sensations that we experience in sacred moments, though without the “anointing” that was present during the original experience. It can be tricky.

  17. Rosalynde Welch on June 15, 2005 at 12:36 am

    Thanks, all, for your responses, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to follow up immediately. Let me try to respond to a few of your excellent comments.

    Daniel: Yeah, I think I remember a previous conversation, at By Common Consent, right? You ask, “Can?t we know the truth of all things by turning to the Holy Ghost?” The point of this post, I thought, was to show that for me it was impossible to know whether the impression originated with the Holy Ghost without both the ways of knowing and the specific propositional knowledge of some interpretive community—some group of people, in my case Mormons—by which and against which I perceive the experience. I’m not talking about picking up a self-help book from Barnes & Noble, or consulting the local priest, and I’m not saying it’s impossible to stand alone as a witness for Christ. But for even the most solitary disciple, spiritual knowledge, like all kinds of knowledge, requires an episteme to mean anything.

    J.: Yikes! I do not covet that particular gift of the spirit, that’s for sure. Adam G. also suggested to me that the impression was inspired, but oughtn’t undermine my testimony, in some way that I don’t yet understand. It’s a possibility. It reminds me a lot of the tortuous way we interpret our patriarchal blessings in order accommodate realities that flatly contradict the content, though, and I’m never very comfortable with that. If God’s going to go to the trouble to send me a message, why not make it a message I understand? (Then again, my 4-yo probably asks herself the same thing about me after I’ve lectured her on the finer points of, say, why she can wear her orange shoes to school but not to church.)

    greenfrog: Thanks for sharing your experience. I suppose this post is my way of trying to be self-observant, as you suggested you are, and, as you suggest, perhaps it is precisely this response that was the intended communication.

  18. Rosalynde Welch on June 15, 2005 at 12:52 am

    Zerin, do you happen to be my neighbor or something? I sense that you’re teasing me. And all this time I thought my regrettable familiarity with late night television was a well-guarded secret…

    M. Youmans: It’s partly that we compare the content of personal revelation with the content of institutional revelation in order to “correlate” our own convictions. But it’s more fundamental even than that: to apprehend any spiritual knowledge in the first place requires some specific way of knowing, and ways of knowing (epistemes) are themselves the products of interpretive communities.

    D.: As Ben pointed out, both the experience and the message involve forms of revelation, so yes, they’re related (although I focus on personal revelation rather than official revelation). But you’re right, I haven’t dwelt much on the message itself, partly because I’m uneasy generating discussions that would appear to attack the basis of our ecclesiastical authority or that could potentially undermine a reader’s faith. Tell you what: you fly me out to NYC and I’ll discuss it with at length over dinner! (Of course, you’re welcome to come to St. Louis, too. The weather’s great.)

    Jack: Hmmm, interesting. Perhaps some big shakeup in my life approaches! I’ll keep you posted… (Meanwhile, if you’re interested in blogged personal drama, I recommend Banner of Heaven. Some really wild self-revelation over there, of an entirely different sort…)

  19. Rosalynde Welch on June 15, 2005 at 1:12 am

    Brian: “The great thinkers of the world tend to have a finely greased tuner and can spin up and down the radio dial picking up bits and pieces of transmissions from all over.” I’m pretty sure this is a compliment, so thanks! Could you, like, translate the compliment into book-speak, though?

    Christian: Well, there’s the emotional response (goosebumps, or burning, or tears, or pounding heart, or whatever it is for you) to something I’m reading or witnessing. There’s the sustained sense of under-the-surface peace. There’s a more sustained and rather more gradual enlightening of the mind (as opposed to the ah ha! instant). And then there are voices and other forms of direct, dialogic communication. I’ve experienced all of these (some more than others).

    Dave: I suspect that I have a significantly more qualified view of the autonomous individual conscience/mind/psyche than do you; by my academic training, it’s my instinct to view subjectivity as overdetermined by ideological and material apparatuses, and on this view *all* ways of knowing are shaped by sociality and power. This is an ultimately unsatisfying form of determinism, and I reject its strongest forms, but I still tend to get suspicious of grandiose claims on behalf of autonomous conscience or consciousness (not that your claims are grandiose). In any case, I share your questions about the possibility of plumbing the sources of thought.

  20. Bradley Ross on June 15, 2005 at 1:13 am

    I must confess that I haven’t read everything that precedes this comment as I normally do. I read the first few paragraphs of Rosalynde’s post and then she headed off in a direction that entirely baffled me. The comments have followed the same line of inquiry: where did that thought come from? My thought was: What a cool analogy!

    Rosalynde set up the analogy for me perfectly. A foundation of many revelations was laid for the church. And yet those starting revelation are not sufficient to keep the church “on the level”. Sand (i.e. many additional revelations) must be added to shore up the weaknesses. Without the additional support of continuing revelation, the church could not remain.

    Rosalynde’s “revelation” was: “Joseph built the church on a foundation of revelation, but that foundation is of sand, and it will collapse.” I think she just failed to include the remedy in her articulation of the revelation. Articulating a revelation is the hardest part.

    Interestingly, when I showed this post to my wife, she had a similar reaction to the beginning of the post but with a different interpretation. Her interpretation (or application, if you will) of the parable that Rosalyde has set forth was equally interesting and useful as my own. I think the Lord loves to teach us in symbols and parables for that reason.

  21. Jack on June 15, 2005 at 1:58 am

    Rosalynde,

    I’m not really interested in “blogged personal drama” unless, of course, it’s my own. :>)

    I think I used a bad example (my own life) in trying to convey what I think is an important idea. And that is, most folks are led by degrees into understanding the things of the Spirit. And as we are led we may discover here or there that a spiritual “notion” which at one time made all the sense in the world will no longer carry the same weight.

    I understand that you’re not really talking about the content of the thought which came to your mind so much as how you seemed to experience the stream of intelligence as if it were a pattern of inspiration with which you were familiar because of your previous experience with the Spirit–even though the content seemed to betray that “notion”.

    I apologize for pouring on my own experience in such a way so as to suggest that you were approaching a big “shake up” of some kind. That was not my intent. Goodness, you’re probably the most sane person I’ve ever read on the blogs. I only meant to suggest that sometimes the “new” can become “old” in the sense that we are now prepared to take another step, which step requires that we be willing to take hold of something new again. If this is the case, then it could be possible that you had an experience which might indicate that you’re powers of spiritual reception are becoming more refined–which is not to suggest that you are in dire need of refinement. I trow you are much more refined than I in these things though you be half my age.

    Of course, if this is all still a little too goofy, then I refer you to comment #10.

  22. Soyde River on June 15, 2005 at 3:35 am

    Would you say you had a plethora of religious feelings?

  23. D. Fletcher on June 15, 2005 at 10:45 am

    Rosalynde,

    I sensed from your message to me that you’d really like to come out to New York. Is that true? I’ll see what I can do…

  24. Pete on June 15, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    How is your conclusion that “personal religious experiences are not self-authenticating, irreducible, or epistemologically independent” not applicable to all human experience(s)?

    On a side note, your post reminded me of what I have read from Martha Beck in Leaving the Saints–entertaining storytelling, but essentially fiction-writing. Did you sincerely debate whether the “foundation of sand” thought was revelation from God or were you just musing on the general subject of revelation and how it is received and categorized? That’s what I thought.

  25. Jack on June 15, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    Wow. Martha Beck? Nothing like.

    What I got from Rosalynde’s post was that for a moment she did “sincerely debate whether the ‘foundation of sand’ thought was revelation from God” because it came to her in a way that was not unlike other experiences she has had with revelation.

    Martha Beck wouldn’t search into it at all. She would accept such a revelation at face value as conclusive proof that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

  26. Jack on June 15, 2005 at 4:00 pm

    …not to say that Rosalynde’s experience was NOT revelatory in nature. It’s just that, if it was, then there are other possible conclusions to be drawn from the experience.

    If it wasn’t, then again, I refer you to comment #10.

  27. Pete on June 15, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Sorry. I just don’t believe that Rosalynde’s post is totally accurate as a factual account, but as writing goes, it was interesting to read (just as Martha Beck’s writing is).

    The message of comment #10 goes without saying, so much so, in fact, that I find it extremely difficult to believe that it did not instantly occur to Rosalynde.

    On the other hand, I did hear of a seminary teacher who had a revelation that he should slit his child’s throat, and it apparently did not occur to him that it was just a random thought entering his mind. . . . not to say that it was NOT revelatory in nature, of course. ;->

  28. Christian Y. Cardall on June 15, 2005 at 5:18 pm

    Pete, I am mystified as to how you think you can claim with such surety that Rosalynde’s narration of her internal experience is not a “factual account.” On what basis could you possibly make this assertion? Martha Beck’s case is totally different, as she is relating her memories of external events and interactions, not internal mental experiences.

  29. Zerin Hood on June 15, 2005 at 5:28 pm

    Perhaps someone else already mentioned this (I don’t have the time to read all of the posts and many of them contain big words or strings of medium-sized words grouped so as to cause my eyelids to droop with an exceedingly great drooping) but I found the “inspiration” to be ironic — the church built upon revelation is built upon the sand — When in fact (and by “in fact” I mean this is what was taught in seminary), revelation is the rock (See Matthew 16:16-19)

  30. Rosalynde Welch on June 15, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    Zerin, right, that’s what we call a “structural irony,” and, right, it was sort of, like, the point. ;)

    Pete, thanks for the compliment (if I’m right that you did intend the comparison to MNB to be complimentary), and you’re probably right to question the reliability of my self-representation; if I’m not mistaken, I have, on these pages, claimed never to have made a spelling mistake in my life, among other such preposterousness. In this case, though, it all really happened just about precisely the way I related it. The experience was sufficiently unusual and intrusive, and felt so much like a “spiritual experience,” that I didn’t dismiss it the way I dismiss other such on-the-way-to-sleep thoughts, like what it would be like to give birth to a monkey, or whether Christian Bale remembers the fan letter I wrote him after I saw “Empire of the Sun.” But as you’ll note, I suggest the probability that it was, in fact, just a random thought is high.

    And yeah, to argue that spiritual knowledge is “not self-authenticating, irreducible, or epistemologically independent” is to argue that it’s a lot more like other kinds of knowledge than we usually assume. I think Daniel’s first comment in this thread shows the ways in which many members (myself sometimes included) treat spiritual knowledge as radically different from natural knowledge.

  31. Rosalynde Welch on June 15, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    D.: You wouldn’t be able to rummage up a quick trip to London while you’re at it, would you? Thanks, darling.

    Jack: No problem! You could be right: “line upon line, precept upon precept,” the Lord’s sort of radically counterintuitive economy of knowledge, has strong scriptural support. The wet weather is gone here for now, though, so further light an dknowledge might have to wait. :)

    Bradley: Nice reading! Maybe this is what it would be like to have a literary critic interpret my writing. Your comment reminds me of an Isaiah class I took from Ann Madsen at BYU: she had what she called the “layer cake” theory of exegesis, and basically any interpretation of any prophecy suggested by a class member, as long as it didn’t contradict principles of the restored gospel, was added to the cake as another possible layer of meaning. This makes me a little uncomfortable, though, because it strips the prophecy of determinate meaning and makes it nothing more than a palimpsest for the beliefs we already hold.

  32. Pete on June 15, 2005 at 8:26 pm

    Rosalynde:
    Its a great narrative, but it just seemed a little implausible to me as a purely factual account. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to think about the consequences of receiving a horrifying thought as revelation. It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, in which he basically suggests that a reasonable observer would necessarily deem Abraham a madman for believing that he had been told by God to kill his only son.

  33. Pete on June 15, 2005 at 8:30 pm

    Christian:
    It’s not “surety” I was proclaiming but doubt. Rosalynde obviously found a provocative way to discuss the issue of how one goes about recognizing personal revelation, but I just found it very difficult to swallow that she, in fact, believed for any amount of time that she had experienced a divine revelation saying that the church’s “foundation of revelation . . . is of sand [and] will collapse.”

  34. Kaimi on June 15, 2005 at 8:36 pm

    Rosalynde,

    Must it be a palimpsest, or might it be (to cite to the famous poem) an elephant?

  35. sheldon on June 15, 2005 at 11:03 pm

    Revelation is, in a sense, a foundation of sand–shifting, fluid, adjusting to circumstance. That is its strength, and also its weakness. Revelation is an imperfect and temporary state of affairs until the millennium and beyond when we will bask in the full light of knowledge. The so called “rock” of revelation that Christ mentioned in connection with Peter, remember, did collapse into apostasy. And so, I believe, will the restored church in a sense. But instead of falling into apostasy as before, it will fall into the millennium. I wonder if its possible that the millennium will come to save the church from the kind of collapse Rosalynde mentions.

  36. JKS on June 16, 2005 at 2:33 am

    As much as I know certain things are of God, I also realize that it is part of his purpose to have us exercise faith. If things, if knowledge, if testimony, if his presence were simply handed to us with no Indiana Jones stepping off a cliff into the abyss (faith is belief plus action) then our faith wouldn’t be faith.
    When I am grateful for an answer to prayer, for a new idea, for an increased understanding, for daily strength or monthly epiphanies, I do not need to question did it come from God. God has given me my mind, my body, my life, my soul, my family, my children, my experiences. I try to give my all, give him my will. Did God lead me to a certain place and time where I would learn the information that I needed right then? Does it matter, because either way I must thank him for the blessing. And as for recognizing truths, I view all my wisdom of research or experience to come from God.
    I have yet to feel tricked by Satan. I don’t mean to say that I don’t sin. I sin. I make mistakes. But I either sin knowingly, or there are times when I act without thought it becomes soon apparent that I made a poor choice.
    I remember being a child and wondering about the concept of temptation. Is it Satan? Or is it just you who wants to do something bad? How can we always blame Satan for our temptations?
    I have a tendency to blame my mortal self, not Satan when I want to turn off the alarm in the morning and go back to sleep, or when I procrastinate visiting teacher and just not get around to it, or when I’m irritated and impatient with my children. I know myself well. Perhaps I should blame Satan more, but I guess I like feeling a little more in control of my own thoughts and desires. They are mine. The battle I feel I fight is only against my weaker self.

  37. Audrey Stone on June 16, 2005 at 9:16 am

    During a period of my life when I was the victim of another persons sins, I struggled with feeling overwhelmed by negative thoughts on a daily, even hourly basis. I felt that Satan was attacking me with a barrage of vicious planted thoughts, and that I could do nothing but pray for support beneath the pounding rain of blows to my mind.

    Finally, I came to realize, by the power of the Lord through the help of a friend, that ultimately I am “running the show,” and that no matter what, I can choose how I want to think. This was a liberating and wonderful lesson in my life. Yes, odd, strange, judgemental, bizarre, crazy, vicious, mean, or funny thoughts do cross my mind, but it is my choice to keep them there and let my mind run with them, or not.

    I am not afraid of my thoughts now, and I don’t particularly worry where they come from or hate myself for thinking them, I simply ask, “Does this feel right or does this feel wrong? Do I choose to accept this or not?”

  38. Larry on June 16, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    Sheldon

    “Revelation is, in a sense, a foundation of sand–shifting, fluid, adjusting to circumstance. That is its strength, and also its weakness. Revelation is an imperfect and temporary state of affairs until the millennium and beyond when we will bask in the full light of knowledge. The so called “rock” of revelation that Christ mentioned in connection with Peter, remember, did collapse into apostasy. And so, I believe, will the restored church in a sense. But instead of falling into apostasy as before, it will fall into the millennium. I wonder if its possible that the millennium will come to save the church from the kind of collapse Rosalynde mentions.”

    Good point. Now we can cast off anything that current or past prophets have said because the best has not yet come, and anything that has been said will be much improved upon in the future and contain the “real truth” as opposed to the misinformation that is being foisted on us now. Let’s all eat, drink, and be merry.

  39. Justin H on June 17, 2005 at 1:45 am

    Come on, Larry. That’s not a very charitable (or careful) reading of Sheldon’s comment. How do you draw from his comments the assertion that we cast off the prophets, past and present? Nowhere in the comment does he advocate disobedience or casual observance of prophetic counsel.

    Accepting the principle of continuing revelation–which means that, as we’ve seen in the Church many times, current revelation may supersede or emend earlier communication–is not the same as saying that revelation is to be disregarded. We live what we have now, and hope for better and more to come.

  40. Larry on June 17, 2005 at 8:09 am

    Justin,

    Your right. I may not have been charitable. What I really wanted to point out is that his comment on the “rock” of revelation collapsing into apostasy and a similar collapse occuring in our time, except this time into the millenium, makes it appear that the revelation is at fault.
    The rock of revalation is ever that. If we can’t rely on it, what is left? If our argument is that current revelation will be replaced by better revelation in the future, what makes current revelation of any real value, especially when we have been told that the fulness of the Gospel has been restored?
    If one is to say that further understanding will unfold as we grow, then that is a different matter; but I can’t think of a single revelation collapsing, nor can I think of a time when the principle of it being a rock ever collapsed. People may, but the rock remains a rock. Thus the idea of eat, drink, and be merry; because that is the way that people are, and will be, if they think the rock is capable of collapse and not a permanent thing. Something new and better will come along, so this one can’t be important.
    Anyway, I hope that Sheldon didn’t take it as a personal attack. It was the idea that I took aim at.

  41. sheldon on June 17, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    “but I can’t think of a single revelation collapsing, nor can I think of a time when the principle of it being a rock ever collapsed.”
    First, I’m not talking about the collapse of particular revelations. I’m talking about the potential for collapse (and we do have a historical precedent) of a church built on revelation.

    “People may, but the rock remains a rock.”
    I don’t think the concept of revelation exists in any meaningful sense without there being people to receive it. Which is my point. If revelation is dependent on imperfect people, then it has potential for collapse.

    “Thus the idea of eat, drink, and be merry; because that is the way that people are, and will be, if they think the rock is capable of collapse and not a permanent thing.”

    I’m afraid I don’t understand your logic her at all. That’s like saying there is no use driving 2005 model car when we know that the 2008 models will be so much better.

  42. Madera Verde on June 17, 2005 at 3:32 pm

    A “revelation” (Or at least something like it) doubting the solidity of revelations. The snake biting its own tail, no? Or perhaps the image of somebody sawing off the limb they are standing on would be better.

    My post is a lot less serious than this whole thread but I always enjoy stuff like that.

  43. Jack on June 17, 2005 at 4:37 pm

    I wonder if we’re talking about two different things here. It seems clear to me that the principle of revelation must be a constant that may be relied upon. And there is no way that we can learn to rely on revelation unless we are offered a reasonable basis for placing our trust in it–which basis is that the Lord has provided ample testimony that His words are fullfilled. And there is no way that we can continue in that trust unless, at some point, we have personal experience with the Lord fullfilling his promises in our own lives–even if that fullfillment is only in how we grow our testimonies.

    Where I think we’re getting confused is in supposing that because there is a change in counsel that there must be a change in the fundamental nature of revelation itself, thus viewing it as unstable and shifty making it difficult for us to place our complete trust in it. The Lord says that His words will not pass away until they’re fullfilled. Thus we have the assurance of His constancy as a Revelator plus the implication that his words may have an end when they are fullfilled. We also learn from the D&C that sometimes there are certain conditions as to his words being fullfilled. If His promises are based in a covenant then it is incumbent upon the other party to fullfill their end of the contract as well, other wise there is no promise. Therefore, move toward apostasy can only come about because of a failure to rely on revelation, not because of any inadequacy in the principle of revelation itself.

  44. JKS on June 17, 2005 at 5:53 pm

    Audrey Stone
    I liked your post #37. We have a choice of whether to accept or reject whatever thought or feeling crosses our mind.
    Is it random? Is it from God, from Satan? Is it our own mortality and weakness?
    Where exactly it comes from is less important that what we choose to DO with that thought. Do we encourage it, dwell on it, act on it?
    I think you have the right idea when you said “I am not afraid of my thoughts now, and I don’t particularly worry where they come from or hate myself for thinking them, I simply ask, “Does this feel right or does this feel wrong? Do I choose to accept this or not?” ” I think this is what the Holy Ghost can do for us, help us make these choices.

  45. Larry on June 18, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    Sheldon,

    “I’m afraid I don’t understand your logic her at all. That’s like saying there is no use driving 2005 model car when we know that the 2008 models will be so much better.”

    Welcome to the world of the Edsel, Pinto, …

  46. Jack on June 18, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    If we’re talking about cashing in on an older model to aquire the new, then we’re talking about a “new” prescribed course of action which has been made known to us by virtue of revelation. Right? Not a newer model of the Holy Ghost. This is where I think the confusion is.

  47. Daniel on June 20, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Rosalynde,
    Thanks for clarifying. I suspected that was your meaning, and I agree with you almost entirely. I do think that we must have a shared episteme to understand the majority of the revelation we receive for everyday living.

    On the other hand, I have had a few (very few) transcendent, redeeming, and word-defying experiences that refuse any and all epistemological means to which I have had exposure. In those moments, the Spirit has communicated things to my soul with a clarity and intensity that I cannot articulate or describe. Haven’t we all had those moments when the Spirit teaches us something in such a way that it carries it unto our hearts in a way that leaves us wordless?

    Audrey, thanks for your post #37. It gave me a new window of understanding. I appreciate your candor and willingness to share insights.

  48. Christian Y. Cardall on June 21, 2005 at 4:04 pm

    Pete (#33): I just found it very difficult to swallow that she, in fact, believed for any amount of time that she had experienced a divine revelation saying that the church’s “foundation of revelation . . . is of sand [and] will collapse.”

    Pete, in her factual narrative she never claimed that she thought for any length of time that the message was a divine revelation. She considered the thought for a couple of minutes—for it seemed to arrive as a penetrating insight—but never said she considered it divine revelation. Only upon more extensive reflection did she relate the incident’s nature to her larger revelatory experience.

    Manual trackback: My own response to this post metastasized into an elaborate diatribe of skepticism toward spiritual experience in general. I am not sure whether its length or content will be more unwelcome.

  49. Pete on June 21, 2005 at 5:03 pm

    Christian:
    She wrote, “[m]aybe the thought did come from God, as a kind of test of faith, to see how quickly I would reject it. Or maybe it came from God as a straightforward communication—one must at least consider this possibility . . . .”

    So are you saying she never wondered whether it came from God or just that she never concluded that it came from God?

  50. Christian Y. Cardall on June 21, 2005 at 9:26 pm

    Pete, you’re right. But I see that end part of the post as her enumerating all logical possibilities at the time of writing the post, dotting all i’s and crossing all t’s. That is, it’s part of the final analysis, and not part of the “factual narrative” of her thoughts during the experience itself, as described in the fourth paragraph.

  51. Pete on June 22, 2005 at 1:57 am

    Christian:
    I suppose we can each have our own perfectly valid reading. I think I understand where you are coming from.

    For me, what makes the narrative so interesting is the drama of receiving a “revelation” calling into question a “bedrock” gospel principle (Is it too controversial to suggest that something like “the rock of revelation upon which the church is built will never fail” is a bedrock gospel principle?). But for that very reason, I find the story a bit too dramatic to be taken seriously as an account of only actual (non-imaginary) events. I suppose, it’s this same kind of doubt that has so often been directed toward ole’ Joe Smith and his crazy stories.

  52. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 22, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    Revelation is like the sand in the foundation you discussed — it constantly needs to be renewed.

    I liked that part of the parallel. Without renewal, such a foundation fails.

    So, in the Church and our lives, we need the constant stream of input from God.

    It is not “the foundation will collapse” but “the foundation will collapse without renewal” — a useful message to remember.