Capturing the Spiritual in Public Religious Discussion

POSTED by Newsroom Staff

Efforts to dissect, analyze and understand the Mormon faith meet with varied success. Religion — including the cultures, peoples, histories, practices and beliefs that come with it — is complex and multifaceted. Journalists reporting on religious organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have often shown thoughtfulness and thoroughness in their treatments of the religion and the community.

Some journalists treat the topic with sensitivity, nuance and careful research. Others seek to bring context into discussions of doctrine, history and rituals. Many root their discussions in personal experience, as they meet and talk with faithful, believing Latter-day Saints, attend their worship services and interact with their community. Often, such journalists and reporters contribute valuable outside perspectives.

Yet notwithstanding careful and sensitive reporting, the meaning of the Mormon experience may elude those who do not share the faith. This is in part because spiritual conviction — that which shapes, motivates and guides believers, Mormon or otherwise — is, at some level, ineffable. In other words, simple words fail to describe it.

Countless writers, artists and individuals of many faiths have endeavored to describe the kind of belief that goes beyond ordinary experience. Consider the example of Thomas Aquinas, who devoted hundreds of thousands of pages to systematizing Catholic belief centuries ago. According to historical accounts, shortly before his death Aquinas had an experience “that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more. He told his friend and secretary: “I have seen things that make my writings like straw."[i] Aquinas experienced the ineffable and found words to be an inadequate medium of communicating it.

To this same point, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians: “Now we have received … the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. … But the natural man … can[not] know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”[ii] In other words, as one scholar explained, there are many things which “cannot be described but only revealed.”[iii]

What Mormons and many other believers of different faiths call “the spirit” or the “spiritual,” some may dismiss as veiled political or social agendas, psychological disturbance, a product of social pressure or emotional overexertion. Others, while not rejecting things of a spiritual nature, may still be unable to relate to the particular spiritual conviction that animates the Mormon identity. The Apostle Paul explains that without such shared language or experience, it is difficult to fully know or understand the “spirit” of personal faith.

A journalist may describe the visible elements of a worship service; a scholar may interpret recorded details of Church history; a sociologist may analyze trends of growth and development. These insights are valuable.

Yet they do not capture the intangible things such as the profound assurance of reuniting with deceased loved ones that Mormons feel, or how Latter-day Saints resonate with the restored doctrines of a preexistent life, living prophets and the unlimited worth and potential of individuals. Secular accounts do not capture the poignant struggles, the deep peace or the bright illumination Mormons experience on their spiritual journey.

Brigham Young, an early Latter-day Saint prophet, once lamented this communicative breach: “Talk to [someone who dismisses the spiritual] about angels, heavens, God, immortality, and eternal lives, and it is like sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal to his ears; it has no music to him.”[iv] Professional observers can contribute positively to religious understanding, but the full symphony of the Mormon experience — or any religious experience — is comprehended only through personal and profound acquaintance, only through spiritual experience.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.