One of the things I like most about Mormonism is the centrality of personal revelation, the idea that anyone can go to God and get answers. You don’t have to be in some high religious position for this to happen—God is no respecter of persons, and will talk to you directly. The narrative which has become the founding story of our faith is that of Joseph Smith reading in the Bible that he could ask God for wisdom, and taking that seriously enough to give it a try.
In fact, not only is personal revelation available, it’s expected. We tell people to pray and get a personal witness of the Book of Mormon. We warn people that you can’t live on borrowed light. You need to have your own testimony, or else you might end up as one of the people with an empty lamp in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
This is why I’m not sure what to make of it that it’s not clear to me that everyone does in fact get personal revelation. I know people who say that the concept is foreign to them, that it’s like people are speaking a different language when they talk about spiritual experience. Sure, you can toss out easy answers. They need more faith. They need to seek more diligently. They need to do a better job of listening. But I don’t think it’s fair to jump to those conclusions. (I also have to note that my own experience has given me reason to believe very strongly in personal revelation. And I’m far from a shining example of righteousness or diligence.)
One analogy I’ve occasionally encountered is one that Barbara Bradey Hagerty, a religion consultant for NPR, mentions in her book on science and spirituality:
the brain is a radio receiver . . . Several scientists I interviewed proposed the idea. In this analogy, everyone possesses the neural equipment to receive the radio program to vary degrees. Some have the volume turned low—in the case of an atheist, so low it’s inaudible. Many hear their favorite programs every now and then. Others, though no fault of their own, have the volume turned up too high, or they are receiving a cacophony of noise that makes no sense. ( Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” 156)
I have mixed feelings about this way of framing it. But I do like the acknowledgment that one’s access to spiritual experience and personal revelation might well vary widely from person to person.
This also brings to mind the passage in D&C 46 that “all have not every gift given unto them.” Significantly, some have the gift to know, and others have the gift to believe. Going even further than that, I don’t see anything in the text indicating that everyone necessarily has one or the other; some might have neither. I find this striking because it challenges the idea that spiritual knowledge is universally accessible. Here, in contrast to so many other scriptures, it’s framed as a particular gift, not a guarantee. I’m not sure what to make of this theologically. But I wonder if we could construct a different narrative about this subject, one which takes this diversity seriously, and is cautious about making blanket promises about getting answers.
- 20 June 2013