Critical thinking among faithful Mormons
I’m motivated to share this essay based on much recent dialog between myself and a reader who calls himself Evangelical. Mr. Evangelical seems to be intelligent and writes well but also seems to be under a false impression that Mormons can’t think for themselves and that they don’t know how to think critically or objectively.
You can read some of his comments on my essays, “Are Mormons Christian?” or “The new Mormon History – Grant Palmer”, “Burning of the Bosom – Feelings from God,” and “Objections to the Book of Abraham.” I’ve enjoyed our dialogs but have been mystified by his lack of understanding of the Mormon testimony.
I have tried several times to explain and clarify the process of personal revelation but he just doesn’t seem to get it. If you want to have an intelligent conversation with Mormons, I suggest that it would be extremely helpful to understand what we mean when we refer to our testimony. He seems to equate it to emotional feeling.
The Mormon testimony
When Mormons say that they have a testimony, it is usually the culmination of several things. It is a combination of much study, intense prayer, some fasting, perhaps the giving up of some long-held habits or ideas and most importantly, the receipt of knowledge imparted directly to the spirit through the Holy Ghost.
And that’s the part on which I focus. I wonder if Mr. Evangelical thinks that we base our religious conviction purely on feelings, or more aptly, on emotions. As I tried to explain to him, feelings and emotions are two separate things. I don’t think I’m the only one that defines emotions as biological and feelings as spiritual.
It’s a difficult thing to define and even more difficult to explain the difference between the two, especially if you’ve never thought about it. We believe that one way God communicates with us is directly to our heart and mind. We call this revelation. Revelation is usually accompanied by feelings of the love of God.
The heart and mind
That’s why the sharing of a testimony by a Mormon can be such an emotional thing. It can be difficult to control the emotions when one remembers the feelings of love that accompanied the revelation received when praying about some truth. However, it is not the emotional reaction that constitutes the receipt of a testimony.
A testimony is revealed knowledge from God on some subject. We usually do not receive revelation without requesting it in prayer. When it is received, it may not come all at once. It may take hours, days or longer to have a prayer answered and to know the mind and will of the Lord on a subject that we want to understand.
We cannot pray our way to an understanding of things. We have to study things out, make a decision and then take it to God in prayer to ask for a confirmation. If it is a correct decision, we will feel it in our heart and know it in our mind. That is a different kind of knowledge that the world does not generally understand.
Inspiration and revelation
One of the best ways I can think of to describe revelation is to equate it to the process of receiving inspiration. Have you ever been faced with a problem and done some serious thinking about how to solve it? Then suddenly, perhaps when you are not thinking about it, an idea pops into your mind that helps to solve it?
We can safely call that inspiration. I attribute inspiration to God or to the influence of angels or to the Holy Ghost. Revelation is similar but in addition to studying a subject out, you then come to your own conclusion and present it to the Lord in prayer, asking specifically for a confirmation to know if it is right or wrong.
Most faithful Mormons are very familiar with this process and use it often, both in their everyday life and in their work in the church. We can pray for inspiration and ideas then come to us. We study things out, come to conclusions, and then pray for revelation. Sometimes it comes right away and sometimes we must wait patiently.
Study it out in advance
The point of this essay is that you can’t just pray your way to revelation. Although there are times when revelation comes unrequested, as in warnings, for the most part, we must study our subject, think about it, ponder it, analyze it and then come to some sort of conclusion before we ask for a confirmation of our conclusion.
That’s where the process of critical thinking comes in. Sometimes we get hung up on wanting to fully understand a subject by making sure that we read the opposing viewpoints. Strangely enough, this is not a necessary part of the process in coming to a knowledge of the things of God. And that is where we get criticized so much.
I do not need to know what the people who hated Joseph Smith had to say about him when I study his life. It helps provide background and historical context but it is not required reading to be able to say that I have critically thought about the man and his claims. I can study his work and then go directly to God for confirmation.
Criticism and critical thinking
The same is true for the process of studying the Book of Mormon. I do not need to read the criticisms of the book to be able to say that I have studied it and am ready to present it to God to know if it contains truth. The Book of Mormon should be able to stand on its own, without supporting documentation or opposing criticism.
People who are educated are used to the process of considering critical reviews as part of their objective studies of a subject. Unfortunately, sometimes they forget to include original research in their studies and never get around to actually reading the Book of Mormon, or selected portions of it, with the intent to understand it.
The Lord called the Book of Mormon a marvelous work and a wonder. I like that because it accurately identifies the method of the coming forth of the book to be very unorthodox. Angels, gold plates, Urim and Thummim, an uneducated farm boy – all these are unusual to say the least. How can one be objective about this?
Summary and conclusion
The Mormon testimony is not comprised solely of emotional feelings. Yes, it does contain that. Who could not help but be affected emotionally when God pours his love into your soul as part of the process of receiving a testimony? But the most important part of a testimony is the revealed knowledge that is spiritually received.
In order to receive the knowledge that we talk about when we bear our testimonies, we must have met the requirements of studying a subject and pondering it in our hearts and minds. Only then can we take it to God in prayer and ask for a witness of the spirit that what we have studied, pondered and concluded is God’s word.
We invite all people everywhere to study our claims objectively, listen to what we have to say about modern revelation and then to take it to God in prayer in an effort to receive the promised witness of personal revelation. I and millions of others can and do share our personal witness that this process works as promised.
LDS Scriptures that teach this basic doctrine: