The Church and the Conversion Experience

Some time ago someone made a comment on one of our threads characterizing the LDS notion of revelation as a “hot sensation brought on by emotionally charged media.” In regard to the role of revelation in the conversion experience, the writer also felt “challenged” by the need to explain the revelatory experience to an investigator because he or she had “expected divine communication to be more clear.”

I share the writer’s distaste for the maudlin and sentimental in media, from which I protect myself via the “off” button. The remainder of the critique, however, is less than compelling. The key to the writer’s anxieties and discomfort probably lies within his or her expectations. If I had to guess, I’d say that those expectations were forged almost completely by interaction with the BoM and perhaps the surviving popular accounts of early LDS experiences.

The LDS conversion paradigm, however, is grounded in the NT conversion experience and the NT idea of what is communicated during conversion. Conversion events in the NT are emotional but they do not tail off into emotional incoherence. Instead, these experiences lead to behaviors that form and shape the community into the body of Christ. Missionaries are uniquely qualified for their role in bringing the conversion event to culmination.

A Burning in the Bosom

The reference above to a “hot sensation” is probably an allusion to the idea of “a burning in the bosom.” I cannot say precisely how the expression passed from 19th century Protestantism into LDS thought, but its ultimate source is the experience of discipleship on the road to Emmaus:

Luke 24:29-32 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

There are three point of interest here. First, notice what Luke reports was happening when their hearts were burning. It’s not during the meal, but while an otherwise unknown teacher was “opening the scriptures” to them concerning the Messiah. In other words, a persuasive intellectual interaction with a stranger prompts the sensation. Second, notice that the experience is NOT self-explanatory. In fact, they don’t even notice it until the teaching moment has passed into retrospection, although they clearly regret the oversight. Finally, notice that the disciples so graced do not drop into emotional incoherence. Instead their actions are logical as they decide to rise and return immediately to Jerusalem to share their experiences.

In the larger picture of NT Christianity, then, Luke is teaching that this sensory experience allows converts to be persuaded of the person and work of Christ when he is taught among them despite that fact that he is not physically present. From an LDS perspective, I imagine that when we talk about the founding and role of the Church, we are likewise talking about the person and mission of Christ. So if the NT account is in some way normative, we might reasonably expect investigators to experience the same response.

Self-Explanatory Experiences

The return of the disciples to Jerusalem from Emmaus is significant. When we extend this investigation to other NT commissioning and conversion experience, we find that other people always play a significant role in the experience. Take, for example, the story of Paul on the road to Damascus:

Acts 9:3-6 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.

Note that even when Jesus himself appears in what we might call a “substantive” event, he does not explain the implications of the experience. Instead this activity is delegated to one of Paul’s fellow humans, in this case a gentleman by the name of Ananias. So critical is the success of this investigator-Christian interaction that Jesus will also appear to Ananias, just to make sure that nothing untoward happens!

And we find much the same thing when we look at the Cornelius story, likewise a “substantive” experience:

Acts 10:1-6 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

Why is it that Cornelius must send for Peter? In a limited sense, this is the event that will open Christianity to the Gentiles, so Peter’s standing among the disciples was a key to the validation of that effort. But this answer only delays grappling with the real issue. Why must Paul hunt up Ananias, why must Philip find the eunuch of the Candace, why must the disciples return to Jerusalem, why can’t Cornelius just show up at the local Christian branch, and why must missionaries explain some facets of the conversion experience to those who encounter it? Why can’t Jesus just do it all by himself?

The short answer is that the conversion experience is not self-explanatory, and that if the missionaries don’t bring it to the attention of investigators the event may never come to culmination. But the more comprehensive approach lies, I think, lies with the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, that is, as a community:

Ephesians 4:14-16 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

In the end, the conversion event does not seem to have been designed to be self-explanatory. On the contrary, it seems to have purposefully been created in a fashion that requires the participation of the community. It is the means by which the whole body is “joined and knit together” so that each part can promote the growth of the whole. Indeed, it is the primary experience by which individuals can perceive themselves as members of this body, as part of the community. Ideally, we reach toward the other parts of our community precisely in order to build the whole up in love.

The Clarity of Divine Communication

The NT Christians did, in fact, believe that the divine communication in a conversion experience was clear. This was not, however, a verbal form of enlightenment. To them, something wonderful and special was happening among them in the transformation of life that they experienced themselves and saw in others.

And so it is that if you read Paul carefully, you can almost hear his voice ringing down through the centuries, celebrating the fact that God’s love for us entailed that “while we were yet sinners” and could logically expect nothing on our own merit, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “If anyone is in Christ,” said Paul, that is, if we have a relationship with Christ, “then that one is a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17). Indeed, Paul announces, “the old things have passed away” in favor of new things and we are reconciled to God by Christ’s self-sacrificing love (2 Cor 5:18). When Paul wrote about “reconciliation” or “freedom” or “redemption” or “expiation” or any one of the myriad effects of the Christ-event, he wrote about what he had experienced, indeed, about how he felt.

At the heart of the NT experience of God-as-reconciled was the Spirit. Paul told the Galatians how to distinguish between the old and new creature based on what he termed the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:19-23):

9 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, 21 occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like… 22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control…

Notice that the fruit of the Spirit is a list of emotions. What is significant about these particular emotions is that they are precisely those that remake us in the image of God and renew our relationships with others. In other words, they issue in concrete acts of benevolence that mirror the interaction of God with his creation. Perhaps you would like to have Moroni show up and supervise you as you write “the church is true” fifty times. Myself, I cannot think of a more profound way to send the message that God is to be found here than to find God within myself as I reflect on the church as the work of God in Christ.

Conclusions and Concluding Thoughts

So…I find myself in agreement that the merely sentimental [Mogget-speak = pious crap] can be emotionally manipulative. If your various media players do not have an “off” button, I recommend you write the manufacturer.

The Church’s conversion experience paradigm is modeled after the intellectual-emotional experience of the disciples on the road to Damascus Emmaus. This does not seem like an illogical choice if we keep in mind that individual responses may vary.

The participation of the community is a vital part of the conversion event. Had there been any other person on the earth with the relevant insights and authority, Joseph Smith’s experience might have been more like Paul’s.

As the representatives of the community, missionaries are logical candidates for the role given them in an initial explanation of the conversion event. Ideally, most missionaries have recently had the same experience themselves and so are qualified, if not confident.

It is challenging to align one’s expectations with reality and no less so when those expectations concern God. What God communicates in the conversion event is himself as present and transformative among believers. This is precisely what needs to be known.

Although your comments on any part of this are welcome, a good topic for discussion might be what sorts of things we might say to an investigator to avoid manipulation.

17 Replies to “The Church and the Conversion Experience”

  1. Your statement “even when Jesus himself appears in what we might call a “substantive” event, he does not explain the implications of the experience.” triggered the following.

    When Paul saw the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, he knew that he was doing wrong in persecuting the Church and that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and Son of God. However, he was given no intellectual basis for this in the vision. In other words, Paul’s spiritual experience was in direct conflict with his intellectual understanding of the scriptures and history, resulting in some cognitive dissonance. Luke T. Johnson discusses this a good bit in his lecture series on Paul.

    Paul chose his spiritual experience over his intellectual understanding, and was eventually able to (mostly?) reconcile the two. By this experience, he came to understand that things of the spirit could only be understood spiritually (1Co 2:14) . He did not try to teach with “plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit… so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.” (1Co 2:4) Those who are converted solely on an intellectual basisremain converted only so long as everything makes sense intellectually. Intellect and reason have place, but are
    secondary witnesses. As Brigham Young said, “Many receive the Gospel because they know it is true; they are convinced in their judgment that it is true; strong argument overpowers them, and they are rationally compelled to admit the Gospel to be true upon fair reasoning. They yield to it, and obey its first principles, but never seek to be enlightened by the power of the Holy Ghost; such ones frequently step out of the way.” – Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 85.

  2. Extremely well thought-out and insightful. I feel ever more convinced that real conversion translates most readily in our actions toward others. Your thoughts about building the community, the body of Christ, as a necessary part of conversion are really quite remarkable.

  3. I am a bit surprised, I had the impression that you wanted this issue dropped. Looking back, I may have charged a bit headstrong on the last post, and I am not interested in being a “stumblingblock”, as the saying goes, to someones spiritual progression- so I am sorry to anyone if I have offended. Frankly I am trying to reconcile my own faith and understanding.

    Since my comments were used as the basis for this topic, I would like to try and put a finer point on it, if I may. Individuals convert to many religions for a number of reasons. Some are intellectual, some out spiritual experiences, some out of a need for affiliation, etc. To Mormons, conversion is the act of committing to the Mormon way following the reception of a “testimony”. This is a bit Sunday School, but the larger question entailed here thus becomes learning to know and recognize the Holy Ghost. How does the Holy Ghost manifest itself, and how do we translate its “promptings” into knowledge/direction. The reference you made to the fruits of the spirit used to be a part of the missionary discussion for recognizing the spirit. As I read the context of the verses in Galations I cannot conclude that Paul was intending to suggest that those traits/feelings would be a valid measure of truth per se, but rather these are the traits of the “new man in Christ”. To put a modern slant on it, Paul’s message of the fruits of the spirit are more along the lines of what Neil A. Maxwell said and wrote about concerning discipleship.

    Burning in the Bosom: There are two very famous scriptures in the LDS canon which address this spiritual manifestation. One is the account you mentioned of Jesus and his disciples on the road to Emmaus. I have often wondered if we take the reference of the “burning bosom” mentioned here far more literal than was intended. Is it possible that the disciples here, in an effort to describe something which can only be truly understood by experiencing, were employing a figurative expression – never meant to be taken quite so exact. For those of you with some expertise on this subject, is that a reasonable explanation? I am a bit hesitant taking it at face value understanding the figurative language sometimes used in the scriptures.

    The second scripture on the “burning bosom” is found in the Doctrine and Covenants section 9, regarding Oliver Cowdrey’s inability to translate. In this scripture he is told by the Lord, through Joseph Smith, that he could not translate because “he took no thought, save it were to ask…”. He was then told that the proper method was to study it out in his mind, and if it be right the Lord would cause his bosom to burn within him, if it was not right then he would have a stupor of thought. Again, I think that we cannot take this scripture at face value for the burning in the bosom analogy. From what I remember of the story, Oliver desired to translate just like Joseph. After several pettitions for this oppurtunity, he was finally granted permission. Accordingly, Joseph copied several of the characters down on a seperate sheet of paper, and perhaps with a little coaching Oliver made the attempt and failed. I cannot remember whether he was given access to to Joseph’s Seer Stone, but it would have been unlikely for Oliver to be able to use the Urim and Thumimm. Following his failure to translate, Joseph recieves the revelation in section 9, and Oliver is commanded to go back to being Joseph’s scribe. Here is the problem with taking the section at face value: Oliver is told that before he is to recieve the “burning in the bosom” (yes), or “stupor of thought” (no), he must study it out in his heart and in his mind. If I remember, the description of the characters on the gold plates was that they were similar in to arabic characters (reformed egyptian). How does someone with no understanding of the foreign characters study them out in their mind if they cannot make heads or tales out of their meaning, and then produce the Book of Mormon text. What’s my point, if we are to accept the council in section 9 then I would argue that there was something else happening in terms of revelation, that is not quite as obvious – and perhaps would not be obvious to someone outside of that experience. Perhaps there is more intended with the injunction to study it out ones heart.

    So a final point, the question of how to interpret the Holy Ghost is not a new one. Several years ago Hugh Nibley wrote a paper entitled “Zeal without Knowledge”. In this paper he makes an emphatic point that the Holy Ghost manifests truth in pure knowledge. He does so by quoting Joseph Smith “The First Comforter, or the Holy Ghost, has no other effect than pure knowledge…” then Nibley add’s paranthetically “it is not a hot emotional surge”. I tend to agree with this notion, that spiritual insights could only be conveyed clearly as “pure knowledge”. I would concede, as Nibley says in this paper, that acquiring this Knowledge must be a difficult task, and is no doubt why Oliver recieved the gentle rebuke “you took no thought save it were to ask…”. My point is, coversion does not imply that one has recieved knowledge or truth.

  4. Excellent, excellent. Wonderful. My only disagreement is with your understanding of the fruits of the spirit:

    …love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…

    as emotions. Except for joy, I think all of these are actions. Peace is hard to make into action, but the others are very much actions, not just feelings.

  5. Ann,

    They are virtues. While action may be involved, they are best described as positive character traits or virtues.

    In many ways, they are all experienced as both emotions and actions.

  6. Excellent work, Mogget, as always. I found it particularly helpful how you described two things: the not self-explanatory conversion event (and the need for a community to help make sense of it), and the manifestations of the Holy Ghost in the form of virtues rather than mere good vibes or emotions.

    The later point is probably the most important for your closing question. Perhaps the key is focusing our testimonies on those things that encourage virtuous living. As an example, one could go on at lengths describing Jesus’ suffering, and all but the most callous would be moved emotionally (and, if shown in film, would likely bring on tears, etc.), but none of that really matters if we lose sight of why Jesus suffered. The why actually introduces what it means to be a Christian—i.e., what kind of life is being asked of Christians—and is far more “motivational” than the story that is merely heart-wrenching.

  7. Erick,

    The expression “were not our hearts burning within us” is indeed a metaphor. No one really experienced thoracic conflagration. It is a figure describing an emotional experience and undoubtedly something one must experience for oneself. But I would caution you again about conflating an emotional experience with emotional incoherence or intellectual confusion, and also against trying to maintain that one cannot learn from religious experience. Cleopas and his companion certainly seem to have thought that the sensation should have conveyed something to them.

    Although there are several interesting points within your comment perhaps the most telling is your employment of Professor Nibley’s article “Zeal Without Knowledge.” Concerning the propensity of students to entertain “wild enthusiastic notions” in the religiously, emotionally, and sexually charged atmosphere of BYU, Nibley quoted Joseph Smith and then added his own comment:

    ‘This first Comforter or Holy Ghost has no other effect than pure intelligence’ [it is not a hot, emotional surge].

    I find it unlikely that Nibley’s contrast is intended to equate the immature “hot surge” of BYU coeds with the sober, serious response of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or with the insightful discernment of revelation. Nibley’s parenthetical comment is a caricature reflecting the typical adolescent understanding and employment of Luke that flourishes in the absence of serious interaction with careful, disciplined ways of thinking about God. Hence Nibley’s title, “Zeal without Knowledge.” He really appears to have no problems with zeal when it is coupled with knowledge, so if you wish to enlist Nibley’s aid, you will need to show that Nibley is critiquing Luke or an authentic picture of LDS thought on revelation rather than some of the less restrained elements of the wider LDS community.

    Your employment of Nibley leads me to wonder if there may be a few areas of the epistemology of religious experience that you have yet to consider as carefully as you might like to — it is indeed a rich and rewarding field of inquiry. I wonder if perhaps you might find some of the insight you desire through some suggestions about relevant ideas and literature. There really has been a great deal of work on done on how we perceive God, you know, as well as critiques of various ideas over the years. It is not that there is no place for a genuine critique of LDS ideas about religious experience and revelation, or that it would not be a good exercise. But in order to do justice to the project you will need to cast your nets far wider than the good Classics professor of BYU.

    What say you? Would you like some suggestions?


  8. Ann,

    Mea culpa.

    Galatians is also features some interesting figurative language. In Gal 5:17 Paul sets up something of an apocalyptic war. The Flesh and the Spirit are two opposing supra-human powers. In this context, the nouns associated with the Flesh and the Spirit in vv. 19-23, which philosophers like Chris rightly recognize as vices and virtues, are rendered as the effect of each Great Power on the community. For the record, the fundamental distinction between a community under the sway of the Flesh and one under the Spirit is self-control.

    I have translated the characteristics of the community down to the individual level, and have chosen to focus on the interior state with the understanding that this state “issues” in concrete actions. The suitability of this approach is open to question; here I plead only that it was not done totally casually. IOW, your point is taken!

    Brian J,

    Your thoughts on the shortcomings of dwelling on the torture involved in the passion narratives seem sound to me, and they cohere with the Gospels. The Evangelists did not dwell on the painful details except as they contributed to the desired theological development of Jesus each found appropriate. The Easter event, understood as self-sacrificing love that passes through death to bring about life as an example, also seems good.

    What concerns me in the missionary-investigator dialogue is the potential for “telling” an investigator what he or she is experiencing, rather than allowing them to explore it. I am no counselor, but I think that those folks would have some good insights into how we might help someone understand the experience. I wish I knew a few to ask.

  9. Mogget:

    I would welcome any of the readings you might suggest on these topics.

    My comments regarding “Zeal Without Knowledge” were never intended to suggest an implied critique of the account recorded in Luke, on my part or Nibley’s. What Nibley was saying was that revelation is much along the lines of perhaps what you have said, emotional intelligence (not to be confused with the subject in business psychology also labled “emotional intelligence”). Emotion is fine, and I never meant to suggest that this could not accompany what I would term the revelation, but the emotions in and of themselves cannot communicate the divine intelligence, this is what I believe you mean by emotional incoherence. I will spare the retelling, but Nibley addresses this issue with some of the early Saints conduct in Kirtland.

    Some of your points have caused me to reflect on my expectations, I have wondered if they are too high. I would disagree however with some of the scriptures sited for the case that revelation is not always self-explanatory. To be brief I will mention two accounts. Again the disciples on the road to Emmaus, first these disciples were literally in the presence of the risen Lord. When he approached them, he seems to have done so in a subtle manner. He did not offer some grand presentation as we would expect in say the Second Coming. If I understand correctly, then the general (I use that expression loosely) LDS sentiment is that the Holy Ghost would not have been operative on this occassion, given that they were literally in the presence of the Second Comforter. What implications would this have? I don’t know, but its a variable.

    The second and more direct account is Paul. It is true that when Jesus appeared to Paul he did not answer all of Paul’s questions, and set his mind in order. However he did appear and certify his disciples. While Paul may have undergone a re-education under the tutilege of Christs apostles, Paul was not uncertain that God had made his will known to him. One of the commenters said that Paul would have been experiencing some “cognitive dissonance” as result of this experience. Again I would argue, once he had seen the light, he may have had some confusion regarding how the pieces fit together. He have even had a little bit of Pharisee in him that he could never quite purge ideollogically. But he was not competing for the truth of God and his church, the formal Judaism of his upbringing vs. the new found Christianity revealed from heaven. In other words, the community no doubt had an invaluable purpose in Gods design for Paul, but only after it was revealed clearly to Paul that this was where he was to be.

  10. the larger question entailed here thus becomes learning to know and recognize the Holy Ghost. How does the Holy Ghost manifest itself, and how do we translate its “promptings” into knowledge/direction.

    Sorry not to join in this conversation earlier, I’ve been in and out of town.

    Perhaps I can reword things a little in an attempt to understand your position, using your comments here as well as in the previous TK Smoothie post. Please correct me where I am wrong.

    One of your primary objections seems to be the claim of arriving at knowledge on the basis of religious experience understood as feelings. Why should “good feelings” (understood here to mean a wide variety of things from an “emotionally charged” response to an inarticulate intuition) lead one to believe that the BoM is “true”? Don’t similar feelings happen when people read other religious texts? As such these conclusions obviously conflict.

    So the problems I see you posing are as follows:

    1) What does it mean to “feel” the Spirit?
    *Should we discount certain emotional claims?
    *Can one actually articulate this feeling?

    2) How do we translate this feeling into knowledge, or what kinds of knowledge can we translate these feelings into?
    *Can we for instance claim anything more than “this book is good” from these feelings? Can they yield results that are propositionally valid (such as Joseph Smith actually seeing God)?

    3) What happened to people simply claiming to have seen God/an angel, the way they did in the early Church (i.e., 19th cen)? That seems to provide a much stronger epistemological claim, which cant necessarily be tested, but at least doesn’t have the problem of converting a feeling to knowledge.

    Let me know if I’m headed in the right direction as far as your thinking is concerned.

  11. Smallaxe:

    I think you are along the right lines. Many things cause us to feel a certain way. Certain things make us happy, others make us sad, etc. If we use the “Fruits of the spirit” example with regards to our feelings as a gage of truth, then consider the following example: Someone is to tell you that a very close relative/leader is having an affair. Generally if you have strong emotions towards the family, then your natural emotions are going to be according to a negative slant, ie anger, sadness, confusion, etc. One could then conclude based on a simplistic view of “spiritual feelings” that this claim is not true because it did not produce the positive feelings of reading The Book of Mormon. I realize that this is a ridiculous example, but I would argue that it demonstrates how our emotions are much more based on our values, rather then some type of spiritual metric for determining absolute truth. Mogget has suggested that this type of view, ie feeling good about The Book of Mormon therfore it is true, leans to an adolescent perspective of gospel epistemology, so long as it is spiritually incoherent. I am interested in hearing his take on “spiritual maturity” in this regard. If emotional coherence includes progression to absolute truth and revelation than I will be very enthused. I think you nailed it on the head however with the dichotomy between scriptural revelation, early Church history accounts (not just Joseph Smith or the Prophets) of angels, visions, etc. Vs the modern emphasis on generally good feelings. The Church seems to place a great deal of emphasis on the feelings, through things such as instruction for Missionaries in the former missionary guide, instruction at the MTC, current Sunday School Manuals. They place a great deal of emphasis on feelings by producing the emotionally charged media, pageants, movies (at the JS memorial building for example), literature, etc. Often times the portrayal of the events in this media can come across as fairly disingenuous with regards to historical integrity, rather they go for the emotional appeal. So the trouble I have with the “off” button approach is that I would be protecting myself, if you will, from the Church.

  12. One could then conclude based on a simplistic view of “spiritual feelings” that this claim is not true because it did not produce the positive feelings of reading The Book of Mormon. I realize that this is a ridiculous example, but I would argue that it demonstrates how our emotions are much more based on our values, rather then some type of spiritual metric for determining absolute truth.

    I think most of your last post falls into the question I labeled #2 above (changed slightly here):

    2) How do we translate feelings into knowledge, or what kinds of knowledge can we translate feelings into?

    I’ll do my best to respond to your remarks in light of this question. Before moving on however we should perhaps refine some of the terms this question calls into play. The first is ‘feeling’. We should probably use ’emotion’ instead of ‘feeling’, because ‘feeling’ could also convey one of our senses of perception (to feel an object or to touch it), and I imagine we agree that at least some senses of perception lead to knowledge. For instance feeling the zap of electricity allows me to know it’s real.

    I’ll also assume that you’re not advocating a view of solipsism–a kind of skepticism where one can know little more than the existence of one’s self (see the wikipedia entry for more).

    So this is to say that we agree that there are ways of coming to knowledge, and one of those ways is by ‘feeling’, and we can speak of ’emotion’ as something distinct from ‘feeling’.

    A larger exploration of this issue would be to create a taxonomy of differing ways we can come to knowledge, and look at the possibility of different kinds of knowledge. In this regard you should probably check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on ‘epistemology’ and ‘epistemology of religion’:

    An interesting question to then put into the mix is whether ’emotion’ counts as a way of knowing, or whether it at least leads to a lesser kind of knowledge (knowing that something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for instance, but not leading to anything more specific than that). Take a look at these two entries and let me know what you think. Unfortunately I haven’t had much time to get to this, so rather than trying to summarize it, it would be more helpful to me if you read them directly, and then let me know your thoughts.

  13. Hi Erick,

    Smallaxe is pushing into the subject via philosophy, so perhaps I’ll take the theology route. Eventually, they meet but perhaps it’s not so obvious at the beginning.

    Christian theology (broadly speaking) holds that there are four sources:

    1) Scripture
    2) Reason
    3) Tradition
    4) Experience

    For more info on each of these, you can take a look at the Wiki entry. Some folks put more emphasis on one or the other of these sources.

    The foundation behind all of this is the idea of revelation. At its most basic, it means that we need to be told what God is like. It’s not so much that we need these propositional statements about God, but that we need a life-giving, salvation-bringing self-disclosure on the part of God. For some historical insight on this, check out F. G. Downing since he’s the guy that originally lit the fire.

    Opps! Bit of an emergency here, gotta run. Be back in a minute, though.


  14. That was a long minute. Anyway.

    One more small bit of introductory information to share. When folks talk about revelation, they’re not talking about a total disclosure. The Greek Orthodox tradition is particularly clear on this, I think. There is mystery about God and his self-disclosure does not entail the complete loss of that state. Another name mentioned with the same idea is John Henry Cardinal Newman, who wrote a bit about what he called “reserve” in God’s disclosure of himself.

    Now then. How do we come to know what we can know about God? There’s pretty much something of a consensus that nature bears witness to God. This is to be supplemented by revelation. Revelation gives access to information that is not available in other ways. But what information? Most folks tend to distinguish between “knowing someone” and “knowing about someone.” The former is a personal relationship; the latter is something more along the lines of an accumulation of data.

    The name most commonly associated with the idea of a personal relationship with God is the Jewish author Martin Buber. His big work was called I and Thou. His point is that God cannot be reduced to a concept, much less a set of propositions. In Buber’s words, we come to know God both as an “It” and as a “Thou.” God is not some kind of a “thing” passively waiting to be discovered by our active little selves. Instead, God could and does take the initiative away from us in deciding to reveal himself. The single most power instance of this revelation is Jesus Christ.

    Enough for now…

    Two books:

    H.D. McDonald, Theories of Revelation: An Historical Study, 1860-1960, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979

    Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, Dublin: Gill& MacMillan, 1983.

  15. Thanks Mogget: It will take me some time to read through these suggestions. At this point I don’t think we continue the conversation until after I have read some this literature. If we choose to continue I will post a comment on this post later. Again, thanks for the response.

    Smallaxe: I will try and respond to your question and readings later this week. Thanks to you too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *