Guest Post by Steve Bullock
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” (John 8:32). Why do Mormons place so much emphasis on personal revelation in searching for truth? I will attempt to answer this question with an analogy that compares a search for secular truth to a search for spiritual truth.
I am an investment research analyst by profession focusing on the machinery industry, companies like the construction equipment maker Caterpillar. I do my job by acquiring information through primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and analyzing that information to make correct investment decisions. One of the greatest challenges in this process is acquiring clean, accurate, and true data.
For example, one common way to do research on this industry is to visit manufacturing plants; there are many things that can be learned from these visits including what types of products are being introduced to the market, the quality of the manufactured equipment, and how efficiently the plant operates. I consider visiting the plant myself as primary research. The highest quality and most accurate data come from primary research because it’s something I did and experienced myself. Sometimes analysts from large banks visit the factory and write up a research report which I later read; this is secondary research. While still valuable, many important facts get lost in communication or are muddied by the perception and biases of the analyst writing the report. The least accurate data comes from tertiary sources; it could be someone who reads the analyst report, makes some additional analysis or commentary and forwards it to me. In this case, I’m reading the view of someone else’s view of the manufacturing plant. It’s not hard to see why tertiary sources are the least reliable. The key takeaway is that the quality, accuracy, and reliability of data decreases as you go from primary to secondary to tertiary sources of research.
Another dimension is time. A common research project I conduct is to analyze how a particular machinery company performed during various economic recessions. Researching recent recessions is easy as financial data is readily available and accurate, and there are numerous news articles and financial reports available to make an accurate assessment of what actually happened. As I research recessions further in the past, the quality, availability and accuracy of the data declines. Researching recessions that happened as little as fifty years ago becomes nearly impossible as some of the most basic data isn’t available, and I run into numerous instances of flawed data and inconsistencies in what’s reported to have occurred. The key takeaway here is that the quality and availability of data decreases as you go back in time. Below is a matrix that is a framework for assessing data quality. The closer you get to the top right corner of the box, the more accurate and reliable the data; the closer you get to the lower left corner of the box, the less accurate and less reliable the data.
If we apply this framework to learning spiritual truth, it becomes easier to understand why Mormons emphasize personal revelation. There are many ways we can go about learning spiritual truth, some I would classify as primary, secondary, and tertiary methods, some sources draw upon information from today and others from the past. The highest quality and most reliable data come from primary research, or things we experience personally. If one prays to God and subsequently receives an answer, the truth of that experience to that person cannot be disputed by anyone else. Similarly, one may decide to put the word of God to test by obeying commandments such as ceasing to “look on a woman to lust” (known in our day as pornography) or loving our neighbor by volunteering as a mentor to troubled youth. If those actions result in peace with God and a better, more fulfilling life, no one can dispute the spiritual truth that has been learned by that person. The New Testament often uses the term “Holy Ghost” or “the Spirit” to describe personal revelation or feelings about what we should do. In Mormon religious philosophy, learning truth through these personal experiences is highly emphasized.
Other ways to learn spiritual truth from current data include hearing about the spiritual experiences of friends and family; this is like me talking to someone who visited the manufacturing facility. If I know and trust the person who visited the factory, I can have high confidence that the information is correct and reliable. Similarly, if close family members or friends tell me of their spiritual experiences, I trust they are telling me the truth and those stories can serve as a great motivation for me to improve my own life. On the first Sunday of every month in the Mormon Church we have a meeting called fast and testimony meeting. Members of the congregation speak on a voluntary basis about their experiences drawing closer to God; these stories serve as a wonderful strength to the congregation as a whole. While this data can be very helpful, sticking with our framework, the reliability and accuracy is still less than had we experienced it for ourselves.
We can also learn truth by reading the religious opinions and views of those we don’t know. In our current age of the internet, this is quite common as people surf through web pages and blogs (such as the one you are currently reading). While there is truth to be learned through this method, it’s significantly muddied by the perceptions, biases, and often ulterior motives of those sharing their views. For example, if you visit blogs of former members of the Mormon Church, you will find many stories about horrible experiences and nasty views about the doctrine, leadership, and what happens in the church. I’m not saying that every person in the Mormon Church has a good experience, clearly there are those that do not, but if one takes these negative accounts in isolation, a true, clear, and accurate picture of the Mormon Church gets muddied. For example, a recent independent study by the Pew Institute showed 87% of Mormons say they are satisfied with their own lives which compares with 75% for the US population as a whole. 52% of Mormons rate the communities in which they live “excellent” versus 38% for the population as a whole. A critic might push back and challenge the accuracy of the survey and that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make—tertiary sources of information will always have flaws, biases, and inaccuracies, which is why it’s always better to learn truth through personal experiences with God and putting the word of God to test in our own lives.
Our search for spiritual truth can lead us to analyze data sources going back in time. Common sources of truth include the New and Old Testaments and for Mormons, the Book of Mormon. I define primary research in this case as actually reading the scriptures yourself and drawing your own conclusions from the “raw” data. Significant spiritual knowledge can be gained through this method, but sticking with our framework, the data is less reliable than personal experiences we have with God today. Consider for example the numerous translations and versions of the New Testament (a quick Google search resulted in over twenty versions). Each of these versions is slightly different than the other, with controversial verses often appearing very differently in each one. I want to be perfectly clear that I believe there is enormous spiritual knowledge to be gained by studying the Bible and is something I continue to do myself, but one must conclude that time has resulted in data deterioration or at least fuzziness.
Secondary research, in this case, would be listening to a pastor interpret the text or reading a book of someone who does the same. On top of the twenty different versions of the Bible, we now add the perception, biases, and views of someone else which further deteriorates the data and our quest for clean and accurate spiritual truth. There is still value in listening to others’ views, but it must be analyzed in that context. Another research pursuit that could be put into this framework is the study of the early history of the Mormon Church, a subject getting much attention in today’s media. The study of early church history is a worthy endeavor and much can be learned from the pursuit, but the primary challenge is data quality for something that happened nearly two hundred years ago. There are entire criticisms of the Mormon Church that are built on one journal entry of one person that wrote about something thirty years after the fact. Historical accounts must be analyzed in the correct context and with the appropriate caveats for what can actually be known as facts. Just as with my research of machinery companies, secondary sources, especially for things that happened in the past are less reliable than personal revelation or experiences that happen today. And so we could continue with all the boxes of the framework.
As we come full circle, I hope this post has helped you understand why Mormons place so much emphasis on personal revelation. As one thinks in terms of this framework, it’s also not surprising why Mormons emphasize personal scripture study, learning from modern day prophets and apostles, and supporting each other by sharing testimonies. Mormons like to figuratively visit the machinery factory themselves, drink of truth from the spring, not downstream where personal biases and time can muddy the spiritual truths we seek.