Introductory note: I often share my thoughts on spiritual and religious matters with an online Facebook group dedicated to discussions about and relevant to Mormonsim. It is a group to which I’m particularly attached. Meanwhile, my blog is often silent. I figured I might as well share some of my Facebook musings on this page. It will liven up my blog and also help me to retain more of the thoughts that I’m having. What follows is something I shared on Facebook today, modified ever so slightly.
What does “the Spirit” feel like?
Suppose you’re reading scriptures, and as you do, you begin to feel motivated toward goodness. A pleasant kind of stirring arises within you. You feel more inclined to love and do good. Are you feeling the Spirit?
I think many Mormons would say that if we feel those things while reading the scriptures, it is the Spirit. Yet if we feel those same things while listening to a rock song or watching a Hollywood movie, many of us would not immediately say that it’s the Spirit. Is that fair?
I had a friend, born and raised LDS, who once told me he had never “felt the Spirit” while reading scriptures. My initial reaction was to think, “Really?! You’ve never felt anything positive while reading the scriptures???”
My knee-jerk reaction was eye-opening to me. I realized that I was ready to interpret any positive emotional experience that takes place while reading the scriptures as a manifestation of the Spirit. This led me to wonder if our attributions of feeling the Spirit are based largely on context and not, or at least not as much as we typically think, on a particular quality of feeling. Yes, we associate the Spirit with positive feelings, but it’s the presence of positive feelings within a certain context that generally impels us to say, “That is the Spirit I feel!” I think of people who walk into a Church History site and report feeling the Spirit so strongly. I wonder if they really feel anything different from what they’d feel if they were to walk into a very quiet library or a place associated with importance and grandeur, such as the White House.
This probably sounds cynical. I don’t take it that way. I’m personally of the opinion that we need to close the gap we insist on seeing between what is spiritual and what is natural. I’m content to say that a person can and sometimes does feel the Spirit when listening to good music or visiting Yellowstone National Park or whatever. The more important question in my mind is what the implications of those feelings are. (Is Yellowstone National Park the only true and living national park on the face of the earth? Is Led Zeppelin “true”? The answer to the latter question, by the way, is yes.)
This is not to say that the Spirit cannot be discriminated from positive emotions in general. I’m glad that at least some people encourage us to tease the two apart, to learn to discriminate between them. And I myself have had experiences where what I attribute to the Spirit is something much more profound than “positive emotion.” I’ve felt a kind of electrical current running through my arms while giving a blessing. I’ve felt what I consider to be “pure intelligence” flowing into me, in a situation where something was made known to me in a way that didn’t seem emotionally based at all. Instead, it felt like something became obvious even though it wasn’t something I did deduce or could have deduced. It wasn’t even a feeling of certainty or confidence, it was something much more immediate and apparent than that—like looking out a window and seeing that it’s raining outside. It was just obvious, and nothing like a hunch or even a strongly held conviction. I’ve also felt what I consider to be the Spirit attend me as I’ve spoken at times, resting atop me as it were, and I’ve felt it physically depart at the very second I finished what I felt inspired to say.
But you’ll notice I’m able to describe the above experiences. Maybe not perfectly, but I’m not at a complete loss. They are familiar feelings and experiences—sensations of electricity, the state of something being obvious, etc.—just manifest in unusual ways. I don’t know if it’s good to insist that the Spirit is something entirely unfamiliar and unlike anything else. If it were, how would we even know what it is? How could it inspire us to do good if it had nothing in common with love and happiness and other positive emotions that aren’t necessarily manifestations of the Spirit? Or maybe it really is the case that any positive emotion we experience is a spiritual manifestation, and it’s just that sometimes it’s coming from the Spirit, and sometimes it’s simply the beauty of our own divine spirits percolating up through the flesh. I don’t know. Food for fodder.