Saturday, June 27, 2009

The gift of the Holy Ghost

A good friend of mine is the minister of a large Presbyterian congregation in South Carolina. I told him the story of how I was recently on a business trip to India and went to a Hindu temple. At the temple I was overwhelmed by the very recognizable attitude of worship that I saw in the people there. My LDS upbringing let me instantly recognize an outpouring of the Spirit. The icons and symbols were completely foreign to me, but the devotion, faith and hope for divine intercession in daily affairs were utterly familiar. In fact, I was unable to distinguish what I experienced there from the fervor of an LDS testimony meeting.

My friend the pastor listened to this story and then told me that he feels that God has called him to be faithful within his tradition but that his community of faith is not inherently privileged, more valued by God or “correct” than any other. His moorings seemed to be quite intact. He was confident of his relationship with God and the value of his ministry to others. I was struck by how his acceptance of other traditions gave his faith strength, resilience and even a kind of maturity.

When I tell this story to fellow Mormons, the air gets thick. Before I even get done with the story, the answers are already formed. Sometimes the answers start even before the story is finished. :-) In essence, the Hindu religious experience can’t be real because there are no priesthood keys to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost. This devolves into hair splitting over the definitions of light of Christ versus Holy Ghost, etc. It ends up being a long, tortured and thoroughly unsatisfying discussion, at least for me. The problem is that I've been to testimony meetings and I've been to Hindu temples in India. You can't tell me that the experiences aren't identical. It contradicts direct observation.

My conclusion is that a belief in exclusive access to gifts of the Spirit based on ordinances and priesthood keys is not a pillar of faith. It's a pillar of sectarian division.


Ezra said...

I'd say that's because most people who are Mormon and hold that attitude have never been to any other denominations services.

Grant Haws said...

I think it is sad when Mormons believe that they hold the monopoly on truth...and especially when they won't even consider the goodness in other religions. You miss out on so much good in other people.

gs.rusty said...

Ezra is right. When I first started doubting the mormon Church, I attended a few other churches, and even visited the Vatican. What amazed me was that the same "feelings" I had at the Mormon church were also present at these other Churches - even more so in some cases. These experiences helped me make the decision to leave the Mormon church (and religion altogether).

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I have experienced worship at a Hindu Temple, though it wasn't as moving as what you describe. But I have experienced very moving worship services in different contexts, both Christian and non-Christian. I have felt what I would describe as "the Spirit" in many different religious settings. (In fact, in my latest post, I describe feeling the Spirit after visiting with a Jewish friend at Gay Pride yesterday.)

I invite friends to come with me to Church all the time, and I accept invitations from friends to go to Church with them. I always find both kinds of sharing experiences to be opportunities for growth.

From my own unique LDS perspective, the Spirit is at work everywhere in the world and in every religion. If it were not, then how could mortality be a valid probation for all people? Within the LDS framework, we will each be judged by what light we have. That implies we all have some sort of light.

Far be it from me to judge who has more light. But I do know where I experience the Spirit most powerfully... I would tell anyone who asks to go where they find the Spirit most powerfully. I would say, follow the Spirit. Let it lead you always deeper into where you find your greatest joy. It's a lifelong journey, within whichever spiritual tradition we choose to pursue it...

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Ezra,

I agree. People need to get out more. :- )

Hi Grant,

I think that's my point... a monopoly on truth makes you miss out.

Hi gs.rusty,

I'm glad you stopped by and commented. It's surprising when you first encounter alternative forms of spirituality. We're not set up to expect them to exist!

Hi J G-W,

When I was at the Hindu temple, I didn't have what you would call a spiritual experience (in contrast to times that I've visited other Christian churches). I think the issue is that the Hindu form of worship is just too different from what I know. It's like listening to people speak a foreign language. But what I did observe in others was the facial transfiguration that accompanies a religious experience. I have no doubt about the intensity of what they experienced.

Where do you stand on the idea that the LDS Church is the "only true and living church on the face of the earth"? Is your view more like that of my friend the pastor (that you have a calling within your faith tradition) or do you believe that LDS cosmology is literally true and that other views of God and the afterlife are doctrines of men (or worse)?

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I believe "Mormonism" is as literally true as our language permits us to approximate "the truth." Our language falls far short of being able to capture anything that is truly true, however. The word "literal" itself has reference to language, implying that linguistic forms = reality. Any linguist (or theologian worth her salt) will tell you poppycock.

The only true language -- the only language through which "literal" truth can be communicated -- is the language of the Spirit. I've had the experience of hearing words spoken, or speaking words to describe a profoundly spiritual experience, and having the Spirit present "translating" those words. And I remember thinking, "Yes, these words that we're using are the closest there is to describe what we're really talking about," but knowing that there is much more that the Spirit was communicating that we could only understand if we were listening to the Spirit.

I can't really make assumptions about how "saved" somebody in a different faith is. It's impossible, since there's only one relationship with the divine that I can possibly know, and that is my own. But the Divine that I know is too tender, and far too loving of all his children not to be actively at work, reaching out to them however best he can, speaking to others in their own mother tongue, and calling them by name. So I don't worry about their souls, if that's what you mean. I only worry about mine, and bear testimony to what he's done for me.

But I will say this... Whatever "language" you speak, it doesn't help you unless you actually use it to communicate.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi John,

I guess I'm too simple minded to understand whether your answer means yes or no. I think it's yes. Maybe the answer doesn't really matter, since it has little bearing on the here and now. I like what you said about our obligation to act for good regardless of what our framework of belief might be. This is something that really appeals to me.

I'm not much of a believer anymore, but I continue to feel a deep responsibility to work toward the common good. I guess this makes me a secular humanist (a "nice atheist" :-) ). Giving of ourselves for the benefit of others is a foundation of ethical living.

I love you, btw.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Well... OK. If you force me to answer the question, Yes or No, do I believe that Mormonism is literally true and literally the one true faith, then the most correct answer given the choices you've given me is: Yes. I do believe that, 100%.

And there's only one way for me to be saved, and that is act accordingly, in faith.

But... If you ask me do I think that the beliefs of Mormonism literally capture the reality in which God dwells, and into which we are striving to enter, then my answer is: No. Not without the Spirit filling in a lot of the details in ways that are beyond language to express adequately.

Could other religions have language to attempt to capture that reality that is as valid is Mormonism's? Yes, I think so.

Do I think that Hindus can be saved and/or exalted in the highest degree of glory? I would say that the literal beliefs of Mormonism as I best understand them would teach: Absolutely, yes. But I have a sneaking suspicion that merely being a Hindu won't help you any more than merely being a Mormon. You have to be prepared to go all the way with your faith.

And the same is true of Secular Humanist Atheists.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Oh, and, BTW, I love you too!

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi John,

I enjoy our conversations and I never think we are speaking at cross purposes even though we approach the material differently.

As Mormons we focus more on doctrine and prophetic anecdote than on any systematic study of theology. I've generally encountered a very literal interpretation of Mormon cosmology (except with a few Sunstone Mormons). The concept of duality is not native to Mormonism. Even the idea of the divine as ineffable is foreign to Mormon thought.

I do take seriously your exhortation to walk the talk. You know what they say-- lack of faith without works is dead. :- )

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Hmm. There is a difference between saying that God has a physical body, and that God's glory is beyond our comprehension. Mormons (and I) affirm both...

I like that Mormons don't have "theology." Theology at its best helps us clarify our thinking. But to engage our souls fully we need something more fundamental than theology. We need doctrine. It is possible to do perfectly well without theology.

I want to clarify that I'm not saying doctrine is "merely" symbolism or poetry. It points us to something that is both transcendent and real...

(I enjoy our conversations too!)

Sean said...

Ever heard of The Sugar Beet? Sorta the Mormon version of The Onion. Some time ago they had an article on the Mormon Church having patented the Holy Spirit and that the church would be sending enforcement officers to other congregations to make sure no one using the Holy Spirit without a valid license. I thought it was pretty funny.

I can't find the article any more. I did find a 2003 newspaper scan on Google that mentions the article and a now defunct URL. The apparently new blog only goes back to 2005. Maybe the older content ended up in their book. Who knows.

My own experience was with the MCC congregation in SLC. It was one of the first congregations I went to after I came out. I sat through their services which, being more Evangelical than LDS, felt a little foreign to me. I fully expected sitting through communion to be just as odd. Instead, I felt what I had always considered to be "an outpouring of the Spirit" the likes of which I had not felt in a very long time. In the end I decided that wasn't the place for me, but I left with the certainly that God loved those people unreservedly and their manner of worship was just a valid and meaningful to him as any other.

MoHoHawaii said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'll check out the Sugar Beet. I'm sure there's plenty of material for them to use. :-)