Question: Are all spiritual experiences conditioned by our current cultural surroundings?

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Question: Are all spiritual experiences conditioned by our current cultural surroundings?

Introduction to Criticism

Some people wonder whether spiritual experiences are merely conditioned or manufactured by the religious tradition or culture that we find ourselves in.

Brian Birch, a Latter-day Saint philosopher, argued that “there is necessarily a social dimension to human experience and self-understanding that prevents one from disconnecting a personal religious experience from the wider practices of the community within which the concepts, distinctions, and criteria that are mediated in the life of the religious community.”

As Blake T. Ostler, another Latter-day Saint philosopher and theologian, has written on this claim, Birch “thus denies that there is such a thing as “self-authenticating” spiritual experiences because we must employ criteria to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate spiritual experiences. However, these criteria will themselves be socially determined and thus the very meaning of the experience itself will be determined by this social dimension. He argues that these criteria will be provided by the social authority of the religious organization or tradition in which the one having the experiences resides.”[1]

Put in another way, say someone says that they have an experience with the Book of Mormon after meeting with the missionaries. They pray to know that it is true as the missionaries ask and they then get a spiritual experience. What Birch is saying is that the person interprets that spiritual experience as coming from God when really its conditioned by the missionaries first saying that the spiritual experience will come from God. Sure, the person can have the experience, but they can’t have an experience and immediately believe that the experience comes from God without another person saying that it does. To Birch, there is a distinction between the experience and the interpretation of the experience. The latter always comes from the frameworks provided by others to us. Others outside of our faith have argued the same thing.

This may be a problem for our faith since it has the potential to strip spiritual experiences of their meaning to us.

This article will respond to this criticism.

Response to Criticism

Experiences not Mediated by Missionaries

The ultimate defeater of this criticism is the experience of people who don’t encounter the missionaries first before reading the Book of Mormon and having an experience with the divine with the book without the missionaries’ framework being imputed onto the experience. There are also those that have had dreams to come be a part of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after having had dreams or even near-death experiences that have given them glimpses of the afterlife and found matching with the Church’s doctrine.

For instance, consider the experience of Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, a member of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

I was 12 when I heard about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I met two LDS missionaries on the bus. They asked if they could come teach my family. The missionaries left us a copy of the Book of Mormon and a pamphlet of Joseph Smith’s testimony. My parents were wonderful people. But they did not join the Church at that time. The two items stayed on our bookshelf for many years. Then one day when I was 18, I looked through our bookshelf for something good to read. I picked up the Book of Mormon and read the first chapter. A special feeling came to me as I read. In my heart I felt the book was true. The Book of Mormon had a special message about Jesus Christ’s Atonement. I learned more about my own life and about Heavenly Father’s blessings. Next I read the pamphlet. I was very impressed. Even though Joseph Smith was only 14, he had the courage to ask Heavenly Father which church was true. From that time on, I have always followed Joseph Smith’s example. I read the scriptures and ask Heavenly Father for help and guidance. Prayer and the Book of Mormon are very important parts of my life. When you have problems, read the Book of Mormon and pray. You will learn more about the gospel and find the answers you need, just like I did. Remember what you feel when you do.[2]

Notice how Elder Gonzalez 1) met the missionaries at a young age but was not converted, 2) probably didn’t know what they were teaching at the time, 3) probably forgot about most of what they taught over the course of 6 years, 4) read the Book of Mormon, 5) felt a special feeling about it in his heart and knew that it was true without necessarily praying, and 6) only after reading the Book of Mormon did he read the Joseph Smith pamphlet. The events and the order of their succession suggest strongly that people can indeed have “self-authenticating” experiences with the Book of Mormon.

Alternatively, one might consider the experience of Robert Mason. He was an early resident of the state of Connecticut. 30 years before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized, Mason had a dream in which God revealed to him many things relating to the restoration of the Gospel. Mason recounted the experience to Wilford Woodruff this way:

I was laboring in my field at mid-day when I was enwrapped in a vision. I was placed in the midst of a vast forest of fruit trees: I was very hungry, and walked a long way through the orchard, searching for fruit to eat; but I could not find any in the whole orchard, and I wept because I could find no fruit. While I stood gazing at the orchard, and wondering why there was no fruit, the trees began to fall to the ground upon every side of me, until there was not one tree standing in the whole orchard; and while I was marveling at the scene, I saw young sprouts start up from the roots of the trees which had fallen, and they opened into young, thrifty trees before my eyes. They budded, blossomed, and bore fruit until the trees were loaded with the finest fruit I ever beheld, and I rejoiced to see so much fine fruit. I stepped up to a tree and picked my hands full of fruit, and marveled at its beauty, and as I was about to taste of it the vision closed, and I found myself in the field in the same place I was at the commencement of the vision.


I then knelt upon the ground, and prayed unto the Lord, and asked Him, in the name of Jesus Christ, to show me the meaning of the vision. The Lord said unto me: ‘This is the interpretation of the vision: the great trees of the forest represented the generation of men in which you live. There is no church of Christ, or kingdom of God upon the earth in your generation. There is no fruit of the church of Christ upon the earth. There is no man ordained of God to administer in any of the ordinances of the gospel of salvation upon the earth in this day and generation. But, in the next generation, I the Lord will set up my kingdom and my church upon the earth, and the fruits of the kingdom and church of Christ, such as have followed the prophets, apostles, and saints in every dispensation, shall again be found in all their fullness upon the earth. You will live to see the day, and handle the fruit; but will never partake of it in the flesh.’[3]

There are numerous experiences just like these that challenge the validity of what Birch argues. They come from people who do not have prior interpretive frameworks completely embedded into the experience.

Conclusion

One may wish to continue to look for and document experiences like these ones as they come to light so that we can continue to cite them as good evidence against such claims. The foregoing should be enough to set the reader out on a good path in resolving this concern.

Notes

  1. Blake T. Ostler, “EP 73 Mormonism and Other Faiths – Vol 5,” Exploring Mormon Thought, February 17, 2019. http://www.exploringmormonthought.com/2019/02/ep73-mormonism-and-other-faiths-vol-5.html.
  2. Elder Walter F. González, “The Book on the Shelf,” Friend 47 (2017): 18.
  3. LDS Living Staff, “The Vision this Man Had of the Restoration 30 Years Before it Happened + How It Led to Wilford Woodruff’s Conversion,” LDS Living, November 10, 2017. https://www.ldsliving.com/The-Vision-This-Man-Had-of-the-Restoration-30-Years-Before-It-Happened-How-It-Led-to-Wilford-Woodruff-s-Conversion/s/86955