“If you don’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, then why are you still part of the Church?” Ivan questioned his brother Alexei. The two enjoyed their gospel conversations, though Ivan left the Church years ago. Oddly enough, they agreed on most of the facts, but never on their implications.
“I don’t let what I don’t believe get in the way of what I do,” Alexei replied.
“Then what do you still believe?”
“I know I had a spiritual experience when I read the Book of Mormon. I asked if it was true and I got a strong spiritual confirmation.”
“That sounds like you can’t trust your ‘spiritual confirmation,’” Ivan sipped his coffee. “If your ‘spiritual confirmation’ told you that something was true and it turned out that it wasn’t true, then spiritual confirmations aren’t a reliable source of truth. You shouldn’t trust them anymore.”
“Not necessarily. It could be that I misinterpreted the meaning of the experience. Perhaps the spiritual confirmation only meant that the Book of Mormon was leading me in the right direction. Maybe God wanted to point me towards the gospel because that would better align my life with his will.”
“You really think God would tell you that the Book of Mormon was true just to lead you down the right path? Even if its historical contents were objectively false?”
“God allowed the holocaust to happen. I don’t see how letting us struggle with the meaning of spiritual experiences is so far beyond the pale.” Alexei stirred the hot chocolate in his hands, waiting as the whipped cream slowly dissolved.
“OK, let’s put this to the test. Let’s see how far you’re really willing to go with this theory.” Ivan sipped his coffee meditatively. “Do you still believe the other doctrines of the Church? Do you still believe that President Nelson is a prophet called by God?”
“Yes. So far, all of my spiritual experiences have confirmed that the teachings of the Church are true, which is to say that following the teachings of the Church will lead me in the right direction.”
“All of the teachings of the Church?” Ivan probed with his eyes. “You’ve never doubted the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, for instance?”
“I think there may yet be revealed many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Alexei smiled.
“A clever deflection, but I’ll let you get away with it.” Ivan responded with a grin. “But that leads you to a more fundamental problem. If spiritual revelations don’t give us eternal ‘truths’ but just point us in the right direction, then is there any limit to what the actual, objective truth could be? Could God just be generically Christian? Could he have told you the Book of Mormon is true because he knew that following the Book of Mormon would make you a better Christian?”
“That’s possible,” Alexei admitted. “I think there are some parts of traditional Christian faith – particularly the idea of a closed cannon – that I disagree with. But if God is just pointing me in the right direction, then I couldn’t conclusively rule out your supposition. But I would stay within the Church unless I got further revelation that God wanted me to go elsewhere.”
“Let’s take it a step further. What about beyond a Christian God? What if the objective truth was closer to Buddhism or Hinduism or some as-yet-undiscovered religion? What if He – or It – was just telling you that the Book of Mormon was true because doing so would make you a better person in general?”
“I must admit that that too is possible. Though once again I would stay in the Church based on my experiences so far, unless and until I receive another strong spiritual revelation pointing me in another direction.”
“And let’s take it a step beyond that. What if there is a God, but no afterlife? What if he is revealing ‘truth’ to you because he wants you to be happy and to live a good life, but there is no ultimate reward for your righteousness in the hereafter?”
“I must also admit that that’s possible.”
“Then here’s your problem,” Ivan grinned again. “If all those things are possible, then why are you following God to begin with? You do have agency; you could always choose not to follow God. If your interpretation of your spiritual experiences is so broad as to allow for basically any kind of God to exist, why are you so certain that you should be following God’s revelations in the first place?”
Alexei took a long, deep sip from his hot chocolate before he began.
“Well, let’s examine what I know about my spiritual experiences so far. I know that I have experienced something. I believe that what I experienced could only come from a power beyond my own conscious or subconscious mind. I know that the spiritual direction I have received has led me to help other people, strengthen my personal relationships, and do good. So, I believe that there is some form of God, that He does communicate via revelation to us, and that He is benevolent. It doesn’t even matter if God is all powerful or even whether He can save us from death. As long as He exists, has power, and wants to do good, that is reason enough to follow Him.”
“Even if he can’t promise you eternal life?”
“Even then,” Alexei confirmed.
“But why? If there is no afterlife, then you only get this one life to live. Shouldn’t you just be having as much good experiences as you can while you still exist?”
“In that case, God can still reveal to you the best actions to take in this life. As long as your life is better following God than not following Him, then you should still follow God.”
“But what about the greatest sacrifice?” Ivan countered. “What if God asks you to lay down your life for others even through there is no afterlife? Would you still do it?”
“But why? Once you die, all consciousness ends. That is the definition of the end of all value. If you have to choose between still being alive albeit harrowed by guilt, isn’t that still better than no longer existing at all?”
“That is debatable,” Alexei conceded. “But that is the price you have to pay to be a true follower of God. You can’t be a true follower of God without being willing to sacrifice for others, including sacrificing your own life if necessary. Your reward for that is to have the constant presence of the Holy Ghost. The price is that you must make that sacrifice if you are called upon to do it.”
“Why can’t you just back away at the last moment?” Ivan asked. “If you know that you are only willing to follow God because it makes you happy, why wouldn’t you just stop following God the instant that it no longer makes you happy? Especially if God suddenly demands your life from you?”
“If you’re truly converted, it’s not possible to back away at the last moment. And if you’re not truly converted, then you can’t enjoy the constant presence of the Holy Ghost while you are still alive. I would choose the former path, even if it risked my own extinction.”
A silence fell over the two brothers as they both took turns sipping their now lukewarm drinks.
“What if it was all in your subconscious anyway?” Ivan asked.
“I’ve had too many experiences that I can’t explain by appealing to the subconscious. My subconscious doesn’t know which problems I needed to recheck on my physics midterm. It doesn’t know which of one of the hundreds of Somalis I passed by on my mission (because none of them spoke the same language as me) would be the one that was Christian and knew English and was looking for a church. My friend’s subconscious didn’t know that he should put on his seatbelt a few minutes before he got into an accident that broke his neck and would have otherwise certainly killed him. Spiritual promptings intervened in each of those cases. Something is going on here besides our own subconscious. I choose to call it God and I choose to listen to it when it tells me to live the gospel, to keep the commandments and to keep going to church.”
“What if someone hadn’t had those experiences that you have been blessed with?” Ivan countered. “What if someone couldn’t say that they knew that there was a God because of external validation? Would they ever know if their spiritual confirmations were anything more than a chemical reaction in their brain? A way to keep them sane in spite of existential dread?”
“Does following the spiritual promptings make them happier than the alternative? Does it help them make other people happier than the alternative? If so, why not keep following them anyway?” Alexei asked.
“And what if the spiritual promptings are just your own subconscious and they don’t lead you or anyone else to be happier?”
“Then I suppose you have finally found a reason not to follow them,” Alexei admitted. “But tell me honestly, Ivan. Are you happier for having not followed your spiritual promptings? Can you deny that you have had them?”
“I won’t deny that I’ve had them.”
“And can you explain away what you’ve felt by saying it was all your subconscious?” Alexei pressed.
“I can not,” Ivan admitted.
“Then why don’t you come to church, even though you know there is a God?”
Ivan thought a long while. “Having spiritual experiences you can’t explain isn’t enough to say that there’s a God. It’s also not enough to justify a lifetime of obedience to one particular God. Especially if you know that at least some of the beliefs related to that God are objectively false.”
“You’re upset that God isn’t exactly what you thought he was,” Alexei replied, “so you’re rejecting him entirely. That seems even more irrational to me.”