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.