Jewish Journal


August 5, 2013

Conversion: Spirit vs Reason



But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.  For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. - 1 Corinthians 2:10-14


All of the LDS bishops in the Los Angeles stake (= diocese) will be participating in a pulpit exchange on August 18th, and our assigned topic will be “Why I’m A Mormon.” While seeking inspiration for the talk, I came across a recent profile in The New York Times that has generated significant interest in the “bloggernacle” (Mormon blogging community). Hans Mattsson, a former high-ranking LDS leader in Sweden, was given emeritus (retirement) status following heart surgery in 2005. He then experienced a crisis of faith after coming across information on the internet that shook the foundations of his belief. After listening to a podcast of an interview in which Mr. Mattsson discusses his conflicted feelings about the LDS Church, I reflected on how Mormons and Jews become and remain converted to their faith.

I have found that the reason most often cited by Mormons for their conversion usually causes Jewish eyes to roll, and sometimes leads to Jews not taking the LDS faith very seriously. When asked, most Mormon converts will say that they joined the LDS Church after praying about its scriptures and beliefs and receiving a spiritual confirmation from God through His spirit.

While I have heard Jews like Michael Medved say they believe that God wants them to live life as a Jew, I have never met a Jew who claims to have prayed to know whether Judaism is the true faith (at least for Jews) and received an unequivocal spiritual confirmation. Although there is much spirituality in Judaism, Jews usually appeal to reason, not the spirit, when discussing religious truth. Given the history of interactions between Jews and non-Jews who were sure that God was telling them to persecute Jews, it is quite understandable that Jews would regard reason as a better guide to true belief and practice.   

There is no question that reliance on God’s spirit is a bedrock principle of LDS theology. Before I fill a position in our congregation, my assistants and I pray for divine guidance as we consider various candidates. After they meet with me, they will often pray to receive confirmation of their call to serve. During their service, we encourage them to pray for guidance and inspiration to know how best to teach a lesson, organize an event, or comfort a grieving soul. All members are asked to pray several times a day and to seek divine revelation to direct their lives.

That said, there is also no question that many Mormons convert and remain converted to their faith because it is intellectually fulfilling. Mormonism is the only religion that I am aware of whose level of observance rises along with the educational level of its members:  A Mormon with a doctorate is likely to be more observant than one with a high-school education. When she was studying with the missionaries, my mother enjoyed the spirit they brought into our home. In addition, as someone with a lifelong fascination with Native Americans, she was fascinated by the story of the Book of Mormon. When she became the mother of a young child with leukemia, she found her church’s explanation of the afterlife both comforting and logical. When I studied the Book of Mormon in college, I focused not only on its spiritual message but also on the presence of chiasmus (a Hebrew literary device) in its pages.

If a Jew stops believing in the tenets of Judaism, he still has cultural, ethnic, and social reasons to remain Jewish. If a Mormon surfs the net and discovers sites that cause him to question his faith, he has only his testimony – the spiritual witness of the truthfulness of LDS doctrines – to fall back on. Since most people will experience doubt at some point during their religious journey, LDS leaders actively encourage members to develop their own testimonies and to share them with others as appropriate.

I hope that Mr. Mattsson receives answers to the questions that have troubled him about his church’s history and doctrine. However, it is an axiom in the LDS world that spiritual truths can ultimately be taught only by the spirit, not by books and websites. My Jewish friends might approach Mr. Mattsson’s spiritual predicament in a different way, but if he is to become a committed Mormon again, he’ll have to rely on the spirit to guide him on what may be a long and difficult journey back to faith. I wish him well.

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