My children have been taking swimming lessons. Naturally, this provides me with both motive and opportunity for asking self-indulgently angsty existential questions.
My youngest is the only one of my children who is really very fearful of the water–it took most of the first week before he was willing to let a teacher hold him in the water. As I’ve watched her patiently help him overcome his fear, it strikes me that I spend a good deal of time trying to get him to pay more attention to his fears–I want him to be afraid of jumping off cliffs, of going too fast down a hill on a bicycle, of getting too close to the loud explosions of fireworks. Be very afraid, I say! It strikes me as mildly perverse that I’m investing this much time and money in getting him to ignore what is surely an evolutionarily adaptive fear.
As I try to teach my children about the life of the spirit, I’m also trying to get them to pay attention to irrational perceptions, that is, to things that they feel without necessarily being able to explain. Much of what they need to understand about God is not easily captured in logic or in words, and, in our rational, verbal world, those feelings need to be amplified, rather than ignored. Here, too, as in learning to swim there’s a balance to be struck–feelings are not an infallible guide to action. Indeed, one potentially useful (if not particularly original or profound) lesson from Jon Krakauer’s deeply flawed look at Mormon fundamentalism is that excesses in religious feeling unchecked by reasoned consideration can send people over cliffs as readily as a healthy fear would hold them back.
Another trouble with an overreliance on religious feeling is that it is atomistic–if I rely entirely on my feelings and spiritual impressions, without evaluating those impressions by common standards of reason or trying to explain them in a shared language, my spiritual life will be profoundly lonely. Worse, I will be inclined to discount everyone else’s religious experience, as some of the comments on Nate’s cannibalism post demonstrate: if I am guided entirely by my discomfort with Nate’s methods and terminology, I will be quick to say that the discussion should not happen, or at least that I will not participate. If, on the other hand, I can employ some of the tactics of the swimming teacher–entice myself to dip my toe into the water of discussion, watch carefully to see if others are able to participate without drowning, not let my fear be the final arbiter of action, I may learn something.
My question is not really whether there are reliable guidelines to help us interpret religious feelings and spiritual impressions–the usual ones would include checking for harmony with scripture and other authoritative pronouncements, an appropriate scope (the usual caveats about personal revelations not applying to those outside our stewardship, etc.), and some sort of commonsense cautions about violence (!) But, of course, exceptions can be adduced to all of these guidelines, and I suspect we’re left with a Potter Stewartesque (hey, look! you can learn something from hanging out with lawyers!) “I know genuine spiritual impressions when I see ’em” standard, which is, while deeply unsatisfying, probably the best we can do.
I think I’m more interested in how we make room for each other’s standards in practice, how we negotiate with the bishopric counselor who thinks every whim is a whisper of the spirit, or how someone like me, who mostly has to think through everything with a very occasional nudge from the spirit or welling up of poetic emotion can explain herself to people with a different religious affect. I think Nate’s response to me and Adam was a good example (if a little too sarcastic) of the kind of swimming lessons I have in mind, and it did, in fact, leave the door open for an increasingly productive discussion. I suspect that such differences in style are actually at the root of the most painful ruptures between “liberals” and “conservatives”, “Liahonas” and “Iron Rods”, etc., even more than substantive doctrinal disagreements. Are there ways we can deliberately and consciously teach each other to understand and get past such stylistic differences?
C’mon in–the water’s fine!