|The Epistemic Conundrum of the Mormon Internal Witness|
Our item entitled Plainer and More Precious Things has brought some responses from LDS quarters, including the raising of a tangential issue which I think it would be productive to explore: namely, that of the issue of the internal witness (popularly known by the phrase, "burning in the bosom") which is said to act as a verifier of what is true, with respect notably to spiritual matters.
Within Mormon scriptures Moroni 10:3-5 reads:
Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Various quotes and comments from LDS sources show how this is worked out today. For example, consider these words from popular LDS apologist Edward Watson (Mormonism: Faith of the 21st Century):
...those who consider themselves true followers of Jesus Christ; those with moral integrity, those who have a sincere desire to seek Truth and who aren't afraid of the Truth, will read this book, and study the issues carefully. They will rely primarily upon God's Spirit and wisdom for confirmation with intellectual reasoning playing a very important, but secondary role to divine guidance. [xvi]
Despite the denial of our critics, there really is only one incontrovertible way to find out if the Book of Mormon is true: We have to read it, study it, and go directly to our Father in Heaven and ask him in sincere prayer if it is true. [lii]
...praying and receiving an answer from God himself is the best and only absolute way to arrive at spiritual truth. [lvi-lvii]
Frankly, historical arguments only furnish a supporting role for one's faith and are only secondary to scriptural accuracy. They are irrelevant to the legitimacy of one's faith.[lxxxiv]
Here are some representative statements from personal LDS websites:
Also sacred to Latter-day Saints is the Book of Mormon as a tutor in discerning the promptings of the Holy Ghost. Many Latter-day Saints, including those born into LDS families, trace their conversion to Jesus Christ and their commitment toward the Church to prayerful study of the Book of Mormon, and through it they learn to recognize the Holy Spirit. Thus, the book becomes a continuing symbol of personal revelation and of God's love for and attention to the needs of each person.
This sacred record asks the reader to approach its words with faith and prayer. One of its teachings is that readers will "receive no witness until after the trial of [their] faith" (Ether 12:6). Therefore, although aspects of the book may seem unusual or improbable at first, it invites its readers to entertain them as possibilities until the whole picture becomes clear and other feelings are experienced and thoughts considered. Moreover, the final inscription of Moroni2 on the title page asks readers to look beyond human weaknesses in the book: "If there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God." He closed his own book within the Book of Mormon by exhorting all who receive these things to ask God, with a sincere heart and with real intent, having faith in Christ, if they are not true, and promises that God will manifest the truth of it (Moro. 10:4).
Now here are some relevant quotes from an education-oriented LDS website here:
The Holy Ghost uses a still, small voice to communicate to our hearts and minds. D&C 8:2-3; 85:6. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught: "Visions do happen. Voices are heard from beyond the veil. I know this. But these experiences are exceptional…Most of the revelation that comes to leaders and members of the Church comes by the still, small voice or by a feeling rather than by a vision or a voice that speaks specific words we can hear. I testify to the reality of that kind of revelation, which I have come to know as a familiar, even daily, experience to guide me in the work of the Lord." (Ensign, Mar 1997, 14)
Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: "These delicate, refined spiritual communications are not seen with our eyes nor heard with our ears. And even though it is described as a voice, it is a voice that one feels more than one hears." (That All May Be Edified , 335)
Elder Dallin H. Oaks cautioned: "Some [people] have looked exclusively for the great manifestations that are recorded in the scriptures and have failed to recognize the still, small voice that is given to them…We need to know that the Lord rarely speaks loudly. His messages almost always come in a whisper…. Not understanding these principles of revelation, some people postpone acknowledging their testimony until they have experienced a miraculous event. They fail to realize that with most people…gaining a testimony is not an event but a process." (Ensign, Mar. 1997, 11-12, 14)
D&C 6:15; 11: 13-14. The Holy Ghost enlightens our minds. He gives us new ideas or insights. He provides flashes of insight and strong impressions
D&C 6:22-23 The Holy Ghost brings peace to our minds. Oliver Cowdrey received a peaceful assurance of the divine calling of Joseph Smith.
D&C 9:7-8 The Holy Ghost may cause a burning in our bosoms. Pres. Boyd K. Packer explained: "This burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being" (Ensign, Nov 1994, 60)
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: "I have met persons who told me they have never had a witness from the Holy Ghost because they have never felt their bosom 'burn within' them. What does a 'burning in the bosom' mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word 'burning' in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity." (Ensign, Mar 1997, 13)
In consideration of these points, several concerns and questions come immediately to mind.
The first takes us outside LDS territory for a moment.
The LDS are of course not alone in this kind of practice. We know that many "mainstream" preachers -- ranging from Oral Roberts to Benny Hinn -- as well as many practitioners of New Age religion -- James van Praagh, Donald Neale Walsch -- have likewise claimed to receive "personal revelations" and have described them in terms that are similar (for whatever reason) to the quotes offered above.
I am not here assuming that one may tar the LDS belief with a basting brush coated with what comes from these. What I am doing is laying ground for broader concerns. I once joined a debate forum where someone accused me of heresy. His assurance was the "Holy Spirit."
Is that warrant to listen to him? Surely not by itself, as I am sure most LDS would agree.
The second issue -- we are assured by Watson and others that this spiritual witness is the only guarantor of truth. Where then does this leave us in terms of evidence and judgment when the paths of this and the "spiritual witness" collide?
This has been a key concern with respect to my "Plainer and More Precious Things" (PMPT) article, and especially the contention that "faith" is something actually based on evidence and that "blind faith" is an oxymoron.
At this point I have brought in with permission some observations made in reply by an LDS acquaintance with whom I am in personal correspondence and contact. I believe that giving others access to our discussion will be beneficial for all parties. I am bringing out key points here -- not reporting ALL that is said -- but wish to represent the point of view accurately.
Counter #1: As my LDS friend puts it, "...one man's proof is another man's comic relief...If Christianity was so darn proven, then everyone would be Christian. But it takes faith, something that is harder to exercise than the simple logic atheists try applying. What I consider proof is hardly the same sort of stuff Christians typically use. For instance, there is no 'proof' from Egyptian writings that Moses ever existed. Does this mean he is fiction? Of course not. There is no 'proof' that Jesus walked on water, raised the dead, or spit in the mud to heal the blind. I believe it on faith. It isn't blind faith, per se, because God has witnessed to me personally that these things are true."
I will begin by noting that one of my issues as a whole has always been that most believers -- in any faith, as it happens, but Christianity with certainty -- have believed what they have on insufficient evidence. Atheists have charged that we believe what we are raised with, or because of peer pressure, and so on.
And there is little doubt that this is indeed why many people (including atheists) believe as they do on religious matters: Not because they weighed and sifted evidence, but because they were taught, rebelled against what they were taught, and ended up satisfied not to look further.
Internal witness is obviously "evidence" (of whatever value) that can be a prod for faith. On the other hand, if that is the only prod, what happens when that believer is tested by an atheist? They either endure cognitive dissonance (which they tend to mistake for a strengthened faith, when in fact, it is like a sore that has gotten deadened nerves) and become a less effective believer in whatever; or, they join the ranks of the non-believers in apostasy.
An internal witness of whatever value cannot stand alone unless we lock ourselves away from competing ideas -- and in the process, compromise a witness.
I have noted that the preaching of the apostolic church did not focus on such things as "personal testimony" -- i.e., "what Jesus has done in my life" -- but on evidence: The empty tomb, OT prophecy fulfilled, the miracles of Jesus. That this is so suggests a serious deficiency in orientation for any person of any persuasion who relies on internal witness as the grounding of truth. The inevitable result of such an epistemic paradigm will be on these lines:
Then, what? The inevitable result is that the proclaimer of whatever internal witness must declare that the seeker is not sincerely seeking, or is not accessing the right source.
Now it may be replied just as simply that a person who denies the relevance of evidence, i.e., pointing to a certain truth, is just the same either not sincerely seeking, or else is misguided. Practically speaking the internal witness could be of no more value than evidence, even if it is genuine. Indeed, since the internal witness is not accessible or open to investigation or argument (as would be things with an evidential basis) one might suggest that the internal witness serves an even less useful purpose than external evidences -- and indeed, offers more opportunities for people to deceive themselves. But more on this below, when we see how the linked site above advises LDS to achieve certitude in their witness.
Counter #2: As my friend asks, "Why did God give [Saul/Paul] a spiritual witness at all if he had abused all the so called proofs to begin with?...Did God love Saul more than the millions of people today, who have to accept 2000 year old Christian 'proofs,' without the benefit of being struck down spiritually?"
In general response I would note that I think it is fair to argue that God gives to any person what evidence they need to accept the truth. This of course may mean the use of revelation; but it may also mean being aware of the truths Paul expresses in Romans 1, and being aware of our own sinfulness -- two things that don't require "revelation" to realize.
This does not mean that all do accept what they know to be true, but it is clear that for any point of view one is confronted with, there is a certain threshold beyond which a person should change their mind, and if they do not, they are being irrational.
Where is that threshold? It may vary by person; but in practice we recognize that there are points where a person is not being rational, and barring such factors as mental illness, make a judgment that they should change their mind, but don't, for clearly irrational reasons. (The parable about the man convinced he was dead, then shown vast evidence that dead men could not bleed, who reacts to his on bleeding by saying that dead men do bleed after all [!], is a good illustration.)
On this account the LDS themselves offer a scenario whereby all men will eventually receive enough truth to make a decision (post-mortem evangelization) so that they could hardly find such a general argument objectionable (i.e., that all men receive the information they need to make a decision, at some point in their conscious life -- we merely say that it need not be after death). As I have said in another context, naturally, a rejection of Christianity is only meaningful if one knows enough about it to fairly reject it. Someone told that Jesus was a demon (after the manner of C. S. Lewis' Calormene solider) would hardly be in a position to make a fair choice.
At the same time, we as individuals are manifestly in no position to determine if any person, other than perhaps ourselves, has indeed had a "fair" chance to make a choice. We aren't in other people's minds, and we can't simply universalize our own perceptions.
Counter #3 -- If faith must be based on some level of proof, my friend countered that this would cause problems with believing Christianity: "If Christians want to rely on physical proof, then they are digging their own grave. How do they explain 55% of biblical cities that have never been located? Where is the proof for a universal flood? etc. All scientific evidence says the earth is 50 billion years old and that we evolved from apes."
The latter items would of course be disputed by my creationist friends and an exploration of those issues are beyond our scope; in terms of the "55%" rule I hardly found that problematic even if true -- what percent of cities in, say, Herodotus have never been located, or in Tacitus, or Josephus?
I noted in reply that it is my contention that historically, we have all the proof we need: testimony of eyewitnesses; the origins of the movement (see also the link within showing that Mormonism, as well as Islam and Mithraism, fail this test); the testimony of hostile witnesses/writers that Jesus was a miracle worker, and so on. The general evidence lends credence to the specific accounts for which, obviously, there can be no specific verification (any more than there could be verification of a personal conversation or limited-scale event recorded anywhere from Tacitus to a Civil War diary).
The evidence points a certain way undeniably. My friend countered that "so long as mankind is capable of lying" such testimony could never be called "proof". And yet the same problem confronts the internal witness if so, as the hypothetical conversation suggests, and as advice given by the website linked above also shows:
D&C 11:12-14; 50:23-24 teaches us to discern the source of a revelation. We may mistake our own thoughts as revelations. Satan may provide revelations to us.
On this account it is significant that the site then quotes an early Mormon prophet as saying, "When...inspiration conveys something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of constituted authorities, Latter-Day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear...Anything at discord with that which comes from God through the head of the Church is not to be received as authoritative or reliable."
But are we sure that those first inspirations were not our "own thoughts" or (without meaning to be pejorative, since as a preterist, I believe Satan is currently bound and gagged) "Satan" at work? As it stands this system is a recipe for epistemic disaster.
As a side note we may add that I do not think we should require "100% certainty" (and I do not think any but irrational atheists would say so, either) of what is in the Bible in order to maintain a belief. Lack of information, or a certain amount of information that is troubling or contrary, hardly seems a reason to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." But there may also be a point at which one must surrender to the cognitive dissonance.
Without engaging specifics, I think the LDS may be particularly vulnerable on this point if, for example, work in the Central Americas does not prove out more significant verification for BoM events. It is one thing that we know where Jericho is, and discuss which layer of it, if any, was attacked by Joshua, and that we have a very good candidate that matches the description; it is another thing again if we have three or more candidates for Ai; it is yet another if the BoM (or any book) names a city and there are not even candidates at all.
In another context I have argued against an atheist that demanded that God could have provided all manner of proofs for Christianity -- ranging from carving JESUS SAVES in the moon to giving a personal and constant witness. I responded here, but to address that last and most relevant to this issue, I noted that our atheist could posit a "best case" scenario: Every person on earth is followed around by a Blue Fairy that mutters the truth of the Gospel in their ears 24 hours a day. The atheist implied that such levels of revelation would result in his conversion.
Would it? How, I asked, if it was revealed that this very God revealed by the Blue Fairies was also truly the God of the OT who ordered the destruction of the Canaanites, Amalekites, and Midianites, to name a few? How if it was confirmed thereby that God ordered the world destroyed by a Flood? Let us make it even better: What if the Blue Fairy had time-travel capabilities and proved beyond doubt to others that the Biblical record was completely accurate down to the last jot and tittle?
I raised this to make a point. We are also repeatedly told from skeptical circles that one could not possibly worship a "monster" like the Biblical God of the OT. Now if that is so, are Blue Fairies any help at all? Would these Skeptics swallow the idea that they would just as well live with this God they declare gruesome, and serve and love Him fully? If they suppose that God would then show the justness of His cause, would they believe Him, or put it down to further criminal behavior or deception on His part?
Ironically it is the LDS apologist Watson who has an answer not unlike this. When asked how he would react to God telling him at judgment that he had been wrong about his internal witness, and the Mormon church was false, Watson declares that his answer would be, "I would ask God why he lied to me or why he allowed me to be deceived by Satan when I came to him in sincere prayer. I will then gladly go to hell than be a servant of such a god." [xc]
One is also reminded of Bertrand Russell's claim that when confronted by God similarly, he would demand to know why he was not given enough evidence. Yet does this not beg the very question that Watson and Russell are not actually deceiving themselves, for whatever purpose?
From a human perspective of course we cannot get in Watson's or Russell's heads and say they are fooling themselves. Within the paradigm I have laid out, the line which they would have to cross may be yet in the future; it may also have passed years before. We can only look at the arguments presented by a Watson or a Russell and gauge their rationality. And is that possible?
I do not suppose my Mormon acquaintances would suggest that the person who responded to one of my recent articles by saying there was nothing in it that refuted their view that Christianity was created by "drunken Roman fratboys" is being rational. Nor do I think they would grant rationality to those who claim Mithra was a source for the life of Jesus. And if that is so, then it is clearly possible to declare that a person has not accepted the truth (or else refused to consider it) past a point when they ought to have.
As I did note further, there is a certain irony in this in any case. The Christian paradigm, as the Mormon one, does have a "Blue Fairy" -- the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is said to convict (but not coerce) persons of the truth. In essence our atheist's "best case" scenario is fulfilled already. We are left with that non-believers must simply deny that the Spirit is convicting them -- which is just as much what they would and could do with a non-stop yakking Blue Fairy, and just as much as they would do with Mormonism's internal witness.
Hence our premise that the internal witness simply does not provide the certitude -- especially not over evidentiary aspects -- that Mormonism thinks it does.
With due respect, I cannot help but be suspicious of some of the further advice given on the linked LDS site. The advice seems tailored to explain away any problem in the equation or any failure of revelation to produce results: "The principle stated in D&C 88:68 applies to every communication from our Heavenly Father: 'It shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.' We cannot force spiritual things" (Ensign, Mar 1997, 10-11). "When revelation is not received or recognized," we are told, among other things, "Increase your efforts to be spiritually in tune to the whisperings of the Spirit...Increase your personal study and prayer…faithfully and honestly...Be faithful in obeying the commandments...Set the matter aside for awhile and cease being consumed by it...Recognize that the Lord may wish you to decide the matter on your own...Recognize that you may have received the answer but may not have accepted it."
Is any way left open to simply say that there is no internal witness at all? As a believer I would not consider this a wise tactic to engage before Skeptics. They will readily produce "personal testimony" from those who found satisfaction in some other faith or some other alleged revelation.
In conclusion: I have outlined what I see as a few problems with the prominence given to "internal witness" in Mormon (and other) religious circles. This is not to say that all Mormons have the same focus or concentration or dependence on the internal witness. There are varying levels of dependency, just as there are in charismatic circles; each person will have to judge the relevance of these arguments for their own experience.
I would close with a couple of Biblical cites sometimes used as evidence in this regard.
Matthew 16:15-17 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
My Mormon friend said, "From this we see that Peter was given revealed truth from Heavenly Father, but more importantly, this is how he KNEW for certainty who Christ was."
This is taken by extension to make this a normal procedure for all people, but there is a social background factor that makes it clear that this was an unusual way of things being revealed. Within the honor code of the Greco-Roman collectivist world, for Jesus to have said of himself, "I am Messiah" would have been deemed offensive. Aggrandizing claims (whether true or not) were perceived, in the context of limited good, as making one's self superior to others and taking away their honor. Recognition of Jesus' Messiahship had to come from outside of himself. Hence as well the voice at his baptism recognizing his status.
This is not a "free for all" license for all of us to depend on revelation as a source; note as well that this is to be placed in contrast to the vast number of times Jesus provided Messianic evidence like miracles and fulfillment of prophecy.
Luke 24:32 And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?
I bring this one up because Skeptic Robert Price compared this to the LDS conception of "burning in the bosom". I know of no LDS apologist who has yet used this verse, but if they do, they do so in error. The "heart" is afflicted, certainly, but there is no source designated -- was it God who was the instigator? Or was it the inspiration of Jesus' exegesis (in line with the ancient perception of speaking as a charismatic gift)? It is unwise to anachronistically assume that it would be the former.
James 1:5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
It was this verse which prompted Joseph Smith to seek divine counsel and led to his First Vision. Smith, however, failed to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom (in the Jewish world, per the context of James' remark, the ability to endure suffering and temptation, not acquisition of knowledge). Even so this no more makes God a wisdom-dispensing "gumball" machine any more than we are given license to literally turn over mountains (see here).
1 Cor. 2:11-14 For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Of all the passages appealed to, this one offers the closest approximation to an "internal witness." The Spirit of God enables men to recognize that which is from God.
But a caveat is that Paul is admonishing the Corinthians precisely because they are not living as persons who have this witness within them. Hence this validates my point that the witness is something that can be ignored or mistaken, and is hence of no more intrinsic worth than hard-data evidences. If anything, the Corinthian experience suggests a need to be discerning and correlate with facts (as the context of 1 Cor. 1-2 is Paul reminding the Corinthians not to follow the world's values).
1 John 2:27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.
Oddly enough, I have run into this one before from Skeptic Earl Doherty as well, who claimed that this was evidence against a human Jesus who was a teacher. My Mormon friend also uses this verse as evidence of a spiritual witness.
However, the answers I gave Doherty also apply here. The problem is that, as Smalley [Small.123J, 125] observes, "this absolute declaration about the dispensibility of earthly teachers appears in the course of a document which is heavily didactic!" One may suggest that 1 John here is using a merely polemical absolute in light of the problem of false teachers in the church, Gnostics who claim to have their own spiritual insight. John speaks in the manner of Pink Floyd's "we don't need no education".