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Symbolic portrayal of a person's sacred experiences in prayer.

The Empirical Power of Spiritual Experience

Amid the seemingly inexplicable events and doctrines of Christianity, the power of personal encounters with the divine emerges as a key to authentic belief. Sharing these experiences bridges generations.
Part 1 of a 3 part series.

Interest in exploring reasons for religious hope has become increasingly prevalent. Some readers might be seeking answers or guidance for loved ones who are undergoing religious questioning, doubting, or even experiencing a faith crisis. Others may be hoping for some spiritual inoculation against such serious religious doubts for themselves and those they love.  

Wonderful scholars in groups like the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Fair Latter-day Saints, Book of Mormon Central, the New World Archeological Foundation, The Interpreter Foundation, and the BYU Maxwell Institute have discovered many fascinating, faith-supporting evidences for a variety of scriptural and historical questions and quandaries that can provide helpful reasons for hope.

I am deeply grateful for the work of LDS scholars like Hugh Nibley, Jack Welch, John Sorenson, Dan Peterson, and Terryl Givens. Like many, intellectual confidence in my faith has been bolstered by the hundreds of pieces of evidence shared by such scholars. But they and I would be the first to say that the best reasons for gospel hopes come directly from the Spirit of the Lord. Indeed, my faith rests on the rock of a number of sacred experiences wherein I have felt blessed, guided, comforted, enlightened, and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost.

A sacred experience can be a kind of scientific evidence.

This article focuses on the power of sacred experiences as a beacon of hope for eternal matters. In this article (Part I of III), I briefly discuss the ways that revelatory spiritual experiences can serve as a type of evidence for transcendent realities (such as revelation from God about spiritual truths). I will also briefly discuss some ways that recording and sharing one’s personal sacred spiritual experiences can bless and strengthen the person who received the experience as well as those who read or hear those experiences.

Joseph Smith and the Power of Sacred Experience

Near the end of his life, The Prophet Joseph Smith stated, “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history; if I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself.” Joseph Smith’s prayers of faith repeatedly opened the heavens. If a person with that kind of faith admitted that he could not have believed his story if he had not experienced it, then I believe that we should be very careful about what we expect others to believe without the benefit of some kind of personal sacred experience. We should also consider what Joseph’s statement may suggest about the power of personal experience in obtaining and sustaining religious belief. I think it suggests that some kind of personal spiritual experience is a prerequisite for many people for a firmly grounded and long-lasting religious belief and hope.

The Prophet’s statement also has implications for our efforts to consider reasons for our religious hopes. Joseph acknowledged that the things he experienced, and told others about, were not necessarily easy to believe. We Latter-day Saints should remember Joseph’s statement. In thinking about and conversing with our fellow Saints (including our loved ones) who are struggling with some aspect of belief in the Restored Gospel—or are doubting the whole enterprise—we would bless them by remembering that, for many, these are “hard things” to believe. Even if—especially if—our own belief came naturally or easily or clearly or is based on profound spiritual experience, we must remember Joseph’s statement.

LDS scholar Patrick Mason, in his book Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, discusses the idea that we should not diminish the amazing strangeness of the core events and beliefs of Christianity in general, such as the Virgin Birth, miracles performed by Jesus, vicarious atonement for sin, and Christ’s resurrection. He also suggests that Latter-day Saints should not diminish the seeming strangeness in the history and beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as the First Vision, multiple angelic visitations, gold plates, and translation through seer stones. Amid such strangeness, how does one find reasons to believe? I believe that sacred experience—personal encounters with God’s infinite love, redemptive power, and foreknowledge are of utmost importance.

Sacred Experience as Scientific Evidence 

A sacred experience can be a kind of scientific evidence for religious truth. Let’s look carefully at the meaning of the word experience. As a boy, whenever I asked my mom what a word meant, rather than tell me, she would make me go get the dictionary and look it up. If a word was particularly important or interesting, she sent me to the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, a three-volume, 22,000-page, 26-pound behemoth that comes with a magnifying glass. Since the word experience is both interesting and important, I followed Mom’s example and consulted the OED:

Experience:

1. The action of putting to the test, trial. An operation performed in order to ascertain or illustrate some truth, an experiment.

2. Proof by actual trial.

3. The actual observation of facts or events considered as a source of knowledge. (pp.  429-430).

It’s notable that Joseph said he “could not” (rather than “would not”) have believed his own story on word alone. Joseph’s statement suggests that to truly believe the kinds of amazing religious events that occurred in the early years of the Restoration, someone may need the kind of evidence or proof that can only come from personal sacred experience. Personal sacred experience is an ultimate form of evidence. It cannot be refuted by one’s own or anyone else’s rationalizing efforts to discount that proof. A downside, perhaps, is that such experience is not “transferrable.”  It is yours alone, not binding on anyone else unless they obtain a spiritual witness that what you have shared is true and relevant to them.

Is It All in Your Head?

It is fashionable in some circles to dismiss spiritual, mystical, or religious experiences as merely internal, psychological experiences (“it’s all in your head”) as if such experiences are not real and perhaps even a sign of psychopathology.

In a recent article on this issue, Joshua Moritz referenced recent neuroscientific studies of spiritual, meditative, and mystical experiences and mentions that neuroscientists such as Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg suggest that,

“The fact that religious experiences result from neurochemistry (and can even be replicated) does not necessarily entail that belief in the objective reality of what is experienced is unjustified. Using SPECT (Single-photon emission computed tomography) scans to examine patterns of brain activity during spiritual experiences such as prayer and meditation, d’Aquili and Newberg demonstrated a clear foundation for these activities within the electrical and chemical activity of the brain. Finding that human religious experience is rooted in the biology of the brain, they concluded, contrary to Persinger, that it is quite possible—or even probable—that there is a corresponding reality that is beyond the brain. Indeed, contend d’Aquili and Newberg, such neural mechanisms mediating spiritual experience would not have evolved in the first place if there were not some corresponding reality that was being experienced.”

And, discussing the tendency of some to discount or dismiss spiritual experience because scientific studies have been able to “measure” electrical changes in the brains of those having them Moritz concluded that,

“Scientific research on spiritual experience has revealed that the details of brain chemistry and cognitive intuitions play a significant role in the life of faith. Yet this is also the case for all our experience of reality—our whole experience of our physical and psychological environment can also be reduced to the details of brain chemistry. Does this mean that such things as physical objects, colors, sounds, people, and the feeling of love are not real?

 Moritz also quoted the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg who said,

“If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as ‘mere’ neurological activities…you would also have to distrust all of your own brain’s perceptions of the material world. But if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is ‘only’ in the mind.

Therefore, while to some there is no rational, logical, or empirical reason to trust one’s own (much less others’) spiritual, mystical, or religious experiences, it seems that, in fact, we have as much reason to trust our spiritual experiences as to trust other aspects of our inner world.

Of course, the restored gospel provides a variety of “checks and balances” to personal spiritual experiences in the scriptures, the teachings of living prophets, and the gift of spiritual discernment available to members and leaders of the restored Church.

This brings us to the importance of recognizing, remembering, and recording personal sacred experiences.

Remembering by Recording the Things of Your Soul

Recognizing and remembering our own sacred experiences is crucial for our own spiritual progression. One of the most often repeated scriptural injunctions is to remember. One of the best ways to remember such experiences is to record them and share them with others. 

 Nephi indicated that he kept a detailed record of the history of his life and his people (2 Ne. 4:14) but that he wrote on the “small plates” “the things of my soul” for “the learning and the profit of my children” (2 Ne.  4:15). In referring to their sacred records, Nephi stated, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Ne.  25:26, emphasis added). Note the connection between the sacred writing of one generation and the sacred knowing of another. Sacred records can provide sacred knowledge.

Sacred records can provide sacred knowledge.

The most important things you likely will remember and record for your posterity are your testimony of Christ and a personal and detailed retelling of how you gained your testimony and how you have come to know Christ and what that has meant in your life. Your family will be most likely to treasure and be spiritually blessed by those things you have recorded that are of a sacred nature—the things of your soul.

In 2018 I published my spiritual autobiography, God’s Tender Mercies: Sacred Experiences of a Mormon Convert (published before President Nelson requested us not to use the term “Mormon”). I spent many years writing about my own sacred experiences. I did so mainly to provide my children and grandchildren an authentic account of how the Lord brought me to Him.  God had poured out a multitude of tender mercies in guiding me by a strong hand to read the Book of Mormon, providing me a sure witness of its truthfulness and cleansing my soul from sin.

In reflection, my journey through the years mirrors the formative stages many people of faith go through. While the intricacies of my experiences might vary from others, the core message remains universal. Every individual’s journey is marked by moments of doubt and reaffirmation. It’s in sharing these sacred experiences that we find common ground and strengthen our collective faith.

I shared verbal accounts of some of such spiritual experiences in a 2016 BYU Devotional and in an interview with Saints Unscripted. In Part II of this essay series, I will share portions of accounts of three experiences I had when I was a young adult and the ways they have given me reasons for hope in eternal realities. I will share three personal sacred experiences relating to questions about the possibility of knowing whether God exists, can answer persistent prayer, and can guide our lives. 

In Part III of this series, I will share some thoughts about ways of sharing our sacred spiritual experiences in ways that are authentic and hopefully helpful to others. My particular experiences and the specific approach I use in discussing them are not what matters. What matters is whether hearing or reading another’s experiences might help you to recognize, remember, record, and/or share your experiences with others who will be blessed and strengthened by what you have experienced.

About the author

David Dollahite

David C. Dollahite, Ph.D., is professor of Family Life at BYU, co-director of the American Families of Faith project, and co-author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith.
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