[The Languages of the Spirit] More Than a Feeling

I remember when I was a little kid and began to learn that there were different languages. I loved that primary song where you learn how to say “thank you” in languages from all over the world. It felt so cool, like learning some kind of secret code. But even as I learned these words I still assumed that when people heard them they were having the exact same experience that I was. For example, I heard the word “hola”, but in my mind it was immediately translated as “hello”. To me “hola” didn’t exist as its own word with its own meaning; “hello” was a word with meaning, and hola was just another way of saying hello. I still remember the day when I realized I was wrong. I was wondering why people would speak in other languages at all if the languages were being translated in their minds into English (because that’s what happened in my mind it never occurred to me it wasn’t happening in everyone’s). So why the inefficiency? Why not just speak English in the first place? It suddenly occurred to me that maybe those words weren’t being translated into English in people’s minds. This was a shock. Maybe those words had meaning in and of themselves and people were having conversations and experiences that I not only couldn’t participate in, but maybe couldn’t even fully understand even if someone translated for me, because those words may have had meaning that couldn’t be fully explained in English. This fascination stayed with me into my adulthood when I chose anthropology as my college major, hoping to be able to further delve into and appreciate the diversity of human experiences.

A while ago I was talking with our daughter who shared how since she has hardly ever felt the spirit it must be that God just doesn’t care about her. This broke my heart. I could understand why she felt this way. The way she had been taught about the spirit was similar to my own experience. We had always heard the spirit described in the same language—a burning in the bosom, the still small voice, that feeling of direction where you “just know”. I had experienced all these things, and for much of my young life I had never questioned them, and didn’t understand what people meant when they said they had never felt the spirit. It was easy to ascribe their dearth of experiences to spiritual deafness or immaturity or sin or lack of faith or maybe something vague about God’s timing. In my youth it had never occurred to me that it could be anything else because the language I had learned that explained the spirit only explained it in these ways. The spirit is a feeling; if you don’t feel it it’s either because of something ineffable about God that will only make sense at some future date, or because you’ve done something wrong. There is nothing else.

But what if there is? What if the languages of the spirit are as rich and varied as the languages of humanity? What if there are experiences that we are missing out on because we only conceive of the spirit in one way, like when the ancient Roman’s created a steam engine and only used it as a novelty to amuse and entertain because they couldn’t conceive of it being used to propel ships.

I’ve become obsessed with this question over the years, more so as society has been fragmenting into Puritanical tribes where only one world view is tolerated, and where to even listen to another view is an act of treason punishable by exile. The exact opposite of God’s Zion, whose strength comes through making our tent increasingly bigger and more inclusive (Isaiah 62), and which is defined by the richness and multiplicity of sacrifices by all inhabitants that make it possible for all to belong, as opposed to the oppression and marginalization of the Other that is a necessary part of power consolidation.

The importance of variety in the gospel and Zion is made plain in the very first revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants when God says that things are explained to us in our own language. God speaks to us in the way we understand, which may not always be the same as our Bishop or neighbors or friends or family. What do we miss out on when we try to stamp out the languages of the spirit by assuming it can only speak in one? What can we not see or understand, what do we prevent others from seeing and understanding, when we use language that inhibits any other way of perceiving eternal things? How many have felt they had to accept that God just doesn’t talk to them, or that they have reached their capacity of what God is willing to reveal to them?

So this blog series is to try and fulfill a promise made to a little girl when she decided she had to accept that God didn’t care about her. Its purpose is to delve into different languages of the spirit; to branch out so that there is no longer one language drowning out and precluding all others. These posts will not create a comprehensive list (that just continues the problem of boundary enforcement), but they will discuss some specific ideas, especially focusing on ones that are outside the box of what we normally consider regarding how the spirit can speak to us. And hopefully they will help us to think differently of what the spirit is, and maybe help us to break some of the chains by which we sometimes carefully bind it through our assumptions and fear of change. Society has never been more pluralistic, and so perhaps there has never been a time when it has been more difficult and important for us to be able to appreciate these different languages. We are seeing families, wards, and communities fragment as we refuse to acknowledge each other’s experiences and try to force everyone to fit into our own. But we can rise to this challenge. We don’t have to wait for Isaiah’s prophecy of a covenant people bound by their compassion and love for the Other; we get to be those people now. And it starts with learning something new about God and ourselves and each other, one language at a time.

[This series Languages of the Spirit will be posted Friday mornings]

10 comments for “[The Languages of the Spirit] More Than a Feeling

  1. One of things I love about the Book of Mormon is that it’s filled with lots of different stories about conversion–and they’re all a bit different–everything from a softening of the heart to falling to the ground unconscious–and lots of others in between. And so while it seems that there’s no end to the many different ways that the spirit can speak to us–the real trick is to discern whether or not it’s coming from above.

  2. Very much looking forward to this.

    The famous “mighty change of heart” is originally described as a manifestation of the Spirit that creates a testimony. Paraphrasing, “We know what you [King Benjamin] taught us is true because the Spirit came and changed our hearts.” Alma 32 describes a similar process, but allows for it to be gradual. This change is far more valuable than feeling “a burning in the bosom” once, but the OP is right that youth may not even recognize it as such given the way we often talk exclusively about “feeling” the Spirit.

    The early sections of the D&C also contain a lot of insight on this as the Saints tried to figure it out.

  3. I was once teaching HP group which contained ex bishops and ex stake presidents on this topic and everyone was vaguely approving. When I asked specifically how often they had been influenced by the spirit, two or three times in a life seemed to be average. I found this comforting as that was my experience.

    Your series will be interesting Mary.

  4. I am looking forward to this series. I am much like your daughter. I am an active, RM, temple attending member, but I often feel like the Lord doesn’t really know who I am because I don’t feel the promptings (telling them to take a job or visit someone) or experiences with the spirit others seem to have. I know that I feel light the most when I study, but I don’t feel like the Lord speaks to me in promptings or direction, which I would love to have.

  5. On my own, I believe there are some folks who live naturally–as it were–within the stream of revelation that comes from the spirit. It’s quite possible that you may be one of them–and that the spirit doesn’t need to thump you on the head because your heart is generally in a good place. And if so, whichever way you decide to go is likely to be right–in that it will be born of good and wholesome desires.

    I wish I were more like you.

  6. Jack, that was a humblingly beautiful thing to write. It both gave me something to think about and a goal to reach for.

  7. Regarding the thought of why the whole world doesn’t speak English and make it easy for everyone, there is a dialogue on this topic between Huckleberry Finn and Jim in Mark Twain’s novel describing their river trip to New Orleans.

    God works in mysterious (various) ways.

  8. I enjoyed Mary’s article, very relevant for our times. Her words and Geoff-Aus and Jack’s and others parallel my experiences. My wife, in contrast, is quite the prophetess, regularly receiving info that shortly comes to pass. While it is a tad unnerving being married to a prophetess, my average bumbling self has adjusted to my blah unimpressive frequencies, yet I have received so many answers to prayers that defy probability that I know He is with me and mine. Another aspect to consider is that in our age of information deluge, it is often the case that we may not need to be inundated with more information so much as needing uplifting encouragement, and with that He blesses me regularly, often while reading the scriptures, I nearly always come away from a half hour with the scriptures uplifted, encouraged, “filled,” or with an idea of what I need to do for me or others.

  9. Interesting thoughts… I once wrote an essay on the topic myself, drawing on various writers on comparative religious experience, such as Ninian Smart and Ian Barbour, as well as looking at more than 30 different ways our scriptures describe the voice of the spirit. Most can be divided into whether they address the mind or heart, thinking or feeling, though some require other lables, like numinous, or mystic, or “I and Thou”, Buber’s sense of “personal dialogue”… I concluded that “Like it or not, people within the Mormon tradition can and do enjoy the full range of all the experiential and historic aspects of religion, along with access to rich symbolism.
    Each aspect becomes like a thread in a rope: awe at the creation, numinous and mystic encounter, moments of reorientation of the mind, and reconciliation of the heart, moral obligation, the likening of scriptures to ourselves, making ancient stories into personal
    biography, dipping into the common mythic experience of humankind, or any number of individual historic events that define and bind our community. Like it or not, when you look at the Mormon community and the Mormon faith at this level of core experience, all
    that defines religion anywhere exists here. Therefore, like it or not, at the outset, any assessment of the religious value of Mormonism should admit that here the fountain of living waters flows briskly. In assessing Mormonism, in dealing with questions raised
    about any particular thread in what can be a complex bundle of threads of varied strengths, some more significant than others, but no single thread carrying all the weight, keep in mind that the validity of Mormon spiritual life must be accepted as a given.”

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