Do Feelings = Knowledge?

Do feelings equal knowledge?

In a recent conversation with someone in my family, we talked about a lot of interesting things- religion, spirituality, biology, etc. I explained some of my reasons for being agnostic, and he told me his reasons for being a theist. We also talked about “knowledge” in the Church or of the Gospel. Previously, about six months ago, we had had another conversation together until very early in the morning about the gospel, spirituality, etc., and we found out that we had both previously decided to ourselves that if we were to bear our testimonies we would never say “I know […]”. We had both come to the conclusion that we can never know really “know” anything in this world. If we base our knowledge on feelings, then we may be able to say “I know I felt something in my mind/heart”, but the interpretation of what it was that we felt is not factual. It is interpreted by our own upbringings, culture, and religious world-view (listen to this podcast episode for someone’s interesting experience with their own “mystical encounter”).

So what do we know? One may know that they “felt something”. To say that this feeling was “the Holy Ghost” one would already be interpreting these feelings according to their world-view. Just because their religion has interpreted these things for them, it does not make their interpretation fact- just belief, at best. So we had both come to these same conclusions- a conclusion that I’m sure many if not most have come to as well, as they have contemplated these things.

Before I move on to part two, I wanted to include Within the Bubble’s most recent post on the same subject. Steve M says:

I spent the weekend in California with my family. Last week, My brother returned from his mission in Nicaragua, and gave his homecoming talk yesterday. It was a really good talk. He was confident, passionate, and very well-prepared. You could really feel his love for the gospel. His comments were very Christ-centered and showed a concern for people, not numbers, office, or other status symbols. It was the first time in awhile that I have really enjoyed sacrament meeting.

When my brother was entering the MTC, I gave him a packet of several articles and talks that I had appreciated on my mission. One of them was The Challenging and Testifying Missionary, by Alvin R. Dyer. Yesterday my brother quoted the following from this talk:

Do you think you can teach a testimony? Can you analyze your own testimony of the gospel? Try and do it. Try and explain why you think Jesus is the Son of God. You will never explain it by physical reasoning. Where do you get the knowledge to say “I know Jesus is the Son of God?” John said, “Of this no man needs teaching.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is not knowledge. When people say they are glad to have a knowledge of Jesus they speak in what we call a manner of speech. The gospel is a feeling.

I thought this was a bold passage to quote, particularly the statement that “The gospel of Jesus Christ is not knowledge.” In LDS discourse, it is not uncommon to express one’s belief in the gospel, the truth of the scriptures, the authority of the Church, or even the existence of God as if it were a matter of empirical fact. Mormons don’t just believe or feel that the Church is true or that Gordon B. Hinckley is a prophet, they know it. President Dyer makes a distinction between such statements and true “knowledge,” calling these testimony sentiments “a manner of speech.” But how often do we make the distinction these days? It seems that the line separating what we know from what we feel or believe is pretty blurry.

When we say we know that God lives or that Jesus is the Son of God, we usually aren’t saying that we have actually seen or experienced Deity in any physical or sensory way. We are saying that we’ve felt something in our hearts or minds, that we’ve had some kind of spiritual experience that we interpret as evidence of God’s existence, or that we have some kind of intuitive awareness of His reality. We “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinth. 13:12), but we believe and seem to sense that there is something on the other side of the glass. But really all we have is that feeling.

But somehow this belief turns into a firm and resounding “I know” (perhaps even “with every fiber of my being”) when it’s communicated across the pulpit, as if we’re talking about a mathematical theorem or scientific law. But do we really know that God physically and literally lives, and not just that we’ve had experiences and feelings that we associate with the divine? Do we really know that the Book of Mormon is not just a good book that’s inspired us, but that it’s a literal history of the ancient Americas? Technically speaking, probably not.

So why do we say that we know these things? Why are we so hesitant to reveal any signs of doubt or uncertainty? Maybe it’s because the more we say we know something, the more our beliefs feel like knowledge. Maybe it’s to reinforce, in our own minds or in others’, that our perceptions of spiritual reality are indeed accurate. Maybe it’s for rhetorical purposes. Maybe we’re too afraid of what not knowing means.

The problem with feelings is that they are so subjective. What I feel is most certainly not going to be the same as what my brother feels, or what my wife feels, or what a man in India or China feels. Also, feelings don’t always reflect reality. A person struggling with depression may have very real feelings of personal guilt and unworthiness, when in reality they may be extremely good people who have not committed any serious moral infractions. Their feelings are real, but they don’t correspond to reality. So while one may feel very strongly that their god is the One True God and that their religion is the One True Religion, their perceptions are still based on a feeling, and that feeling is subjective and prone to error.

What implications does this have? Well, I think that a humble recognition of uncertainty should be a prelude to a confession that we may not be right about everything, and that our beliefs are no more valid than those of others. In discussing our faith with others, it means being open-minded listeners and not-too-pushy speakers. It means that, in the end, we are in no position to prescribe how others should conduct their personal, spiritual lives.

I think it’s okay that we know some things with only one or two fibers of our beings. I think it’s okay that we don’t know some other things with even one fiber of our beings, but still believe. We can come to terms with doubt. We can recognize that to be uncertain is to be human, and that uncertainty doesn’t have to threaten faith. In fact, were there no uncertainty, there would be no purpose in faith.

I’m quite certain that this is not what my brother was getting at. But I appreciate his comments nonetheless. While we most certainly don’t occupy the same spiritual sphere, I loved his talk, and I’m glad he served an honorable and fulfilling mission.


~ by bonoboi on October 23, 2006.

4 Responses to “Do Feelings = Knowledge?”

  1. So what do we know? One may know that they “felt something”. To say that this feeling was “the Holy Ghost” one would already be interpreting these feelings according to their world-view. Just because their religion has interpreted these things for them, it does not make their interpretation fact- just belief, at best.

    I think this is a great point. A feeling is so subjective and can be interpreted in so many different ways. I’ve felt good when reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon, but if I say that these feelings are from God/the Holy Ghost/whatever, I’m already making a subjective judgment. I might have just been feeling good. I mean, I’ve felt warm fuzzies when reading novels or when watching movies or when looking at art in a museum, but I never passed these feelings off as the Spirit.

    Spirituality is a super subjective thing, no matter how objective organized religions try to make it. Which is why I think that churches should exist as a resource, as a place of worship, and a provider of opportunities for Christian service, but not as a mediator between man and the divine.

  2. Well said. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I’ve thought about this for years and struggle with it almost every time I attend church or talk about religion with many folks. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  4. Leave a reply; Ok, I can totaly appreciate this point of view, I was a convert to the church, just a normal young Australian happily living with his girlfriend, believing and reading the Bible a little, but not a church goer at all, all that I knew of were quite flawed and it never occured to me that there might be a Church that was consistent with what I read, or that had a connection with Heaven.
    When missionaries told us about Joseph Smith, It was so exciting and consistent with what I’d been reading in the Bible, and for various good reasons I believed his testimony. I spent a lot of time comparing BofM and Bible for myself, plus D&C etc, and found increadable harmony between them all, all this time I was experiencing ‘feelings’ which looking back I would attribute to the Holy Ghost, some times it was quite strong, I thought maybe it was the Holy Ghost because it was always associated with reading and contemplating the scriptures, but definitely wouldn’t have said I knew absolutely.
    We were taught about tithing so straight away started paying it, to test the promises, which made it a bit difficult for the branch president because we were not members, he had no records.
    We lived the word of wisdom about the day after we learned it, even though we had agreed beforehand if the Missionaries told us we had to stop drinking we would go no further, but it was Christ giving that law and it had such great promises that we tried it out.
    It took longer than we wanted to get legal, Aust law makes you wait 30 days, cooling off period? To get a marriage licence, plus had to organize with our families. Anyway by and by we joined the Church and I’m looking out for something special at getting confirmed, nothing unusual. We were living about 150 miles away from where the Church was and driving home we did have wonderful feelings of peace and happiness and also of having done what was right, and were convinced of that, so to us we had a testimony, an assurance.
    So who wanted the priesthood real bad? Who wanted to tell everyone he could about the Church? Then it started every time I prayed about the latter, strange feeling, just like I had right then, seems to start at the head like a wave, now I wasn’t praying to have that feeling, but to teach people or tell them about what great thing I had found. It seemed everytime I prayed about that the feeling got stronger, as if I was made of water and a ripple was running through me, it really got me wondering, It was getting so strong it was becomeing uncomfortable in a physical sense, was it God doing it or was I responsible through some sort of mind thing. I figured that Moroni said; through the power of the Holy Ghost you may ‘Know’ and as I thought perhaps these experiences were from me, it was not enough to be sure. This is where it’s a personal thing, I’m still going to tell you what happened, but it would be better if you were to experience it for yourself it would freak you out(understatement), but also make you very happy, and you would probably say you ‘knew’ something.
    OK, my main problem was being sure this reoccuring ‘feeling’ was comeing from God or was it being some how generated by me, self hypnotism or mind induced thing. I wasn’t particularly looking for a more definite witness but these were my thoughts, and waking up during the night, I began praying silently again, same subject. My wife was sleeping beside me. As soon as I started praying a very physical thing happened along with an extreem amount of noise, a beating sound, and a very external power had hold of me. When I say external if someone jumped on me from the roof thats external, no chance of my mind somehow conjuring it up. No one jumped on me but this extreemly powerful external force came and had hold of me, accompanied by a lot of loud noise, this freaked me right out, I was really afraid It would take me into the presence of God, and my repentance was a work in progress, (still is) I did a bit of praying I think and it let me go. The thing that I felt was that if that power who’s depth I felt were directed into the Earth it could split it open. I could not believe my wife could have slept through that, but she did. It still comes down to how you relate to what you expeerience, to me it was quite sufficient to believe I knew something. I knew it came in response to a sincere prayer, and it was external, and I felt the edge of a power that was unbelievably enormous. Since then I’ve wondered about the Holy Ghost and the pulsing or beating noise I heard/felt. If the Holy Ghost descends like a dove, maybe it’s decent is comparable to what you’d experience with a dove landing on you because they come down beating their wings sort of backwards to slow and land gently, it would be similar.
    I’ve been shown a few things in dreams, and I think to show me where they came from in the begining I experienced that same thing to a lesser degree, but enough to recognise. But you are still left to work out pretty much whats going on where its comeing from, I think thats through the glass bit, though you can always ask. If I have a dream of that type, on a gospel theme I take it seriously and figure thats my personal revelation. If I saw someone somewhere and was asked to testify to it I’m as likely to say ‘I think so it looked like him’ if I’d been talking with him I’d be more confident to say yep it was him. I’m quite confident to say The Book of Mormon comes from God, and that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God, because there is a connection with Heaven and the powers of Heaven.
    I think someone mentioned a scientific formula, a law, there is one; B X W = F where B is belief W is works and F is faith, useing this formula you can see how faith, that preceeds the miracle can be easily increased. If someone has even total belief 10B and 0 good works 10 x 0 = 0 faith. If a not so sure person manages a reserved 2B and 8 for good works they will come out with 16 Faith, which I would think was extreemly good, and they are in a position to gain a strong testimony. Anyway this is my attempt at trying to explain this situation a bit.

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