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Contrasting Dan Wotherspoon and John Dehlin in 2 Quotes

September 20, 2015

My last post discussed the first two of a four-part episode series of interview between Dan Wotherspoon and John Dehlin co-published at Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories. In that last post, I focused on John’s interview of Dan, and in particular Dan’s closing comments.

I am now listening to Dan’s interview of John, and as many people on the various Facebook groups have noted, the perspectives are drastically different. I have seen several group posts asking: are you a Dan or a John? Just from reading the very different comments at Mormon Stories and Mormon Matters, the contrast in audiences is stark.

Anyway, the difference in perspectives — especially on perspectives on pursuing spirituality in flawed religious institutions — came out to me in something John said that heavily contrasted what Dan had said in his interview. In the second part of Dan’s interview of John, around 1 hour in, John says:

It’s not just these isolated positive emotional experiences that I had, that you have had, that others have had…it’s the fact that those are tied to an institution that brings vulnerable people — and I will say vulnerable, whether it’s investigators that are ignorant to many of these things, or young children that are brought up in it and then…get…you know…the young kid who masturbates and then is shamed or the gay person or whatever…they then get confronted with really difficult, sometimes toxic, and even life-ending situations because the book and the spiritual experiences are tied so tightly — before you’re able to become Dan Wotherspoon when you’re 40 with a Ph.D. and throw nuance at everything, you may have tried reparative therapy and committed suicide; you may have entered into a marriage where you then don’t believe anymore and the wife is taking the kids away; you may have, instead of pursuing a Ph.D. as a female, you may have married some guy and had five kids and now the future that you really would have chosen wasn’t really made available to you. And for me, the connection with the institution make full disclosure and the stakes of difficulty much more significant.

But if you can give full disclosure and blunt the negative impact of the institution, then yes, then at that point, it’s all about what good comes from your reading the text. How does it enlighten you? How does it expand you? But for me, I can’t turn a blind eye to those other things in this narcissistic rapture of that wonderful emotional experience I had as a teen…I’m not going to sit and marinate in the rapture of my spiritual thrill if it comes at the expense of all these other things; to me, they are all tied together.

(I’ll note that during the interview, Dan takes exception to John’s classifying the experience he had as “emotional”. As I have discussed elsewhere, Dan’s perspective seems to hinge on people having experiences that are “more real” than can be reduced to emotional/psychology/confirmation bias/etc., However, that’s not why I have picked this quote.)

Let’s contrast with a part of Dan’s comment from the earlier post:

From there, one thing in particular struck me:

When church is bad, relationships are bad…sometimes I reject it outright and say, “Eff [ed note: yes, Dan says the letter f] you, universe…Eff you, you know, God or whatever…I don’t want to deal with you right now. I don’t want to feel better about this. I want to be mad, I want to be upset, and I want to feel my pain…But somehow I was blessed to have a sensitivity to spiritual trailings…and that’s how I do it.

Whatever peace I’ve achieved here is because I have that connection and I feel it.

If we say that John has had similar experiences to Dan (which I don’t know if one can even compare those, especially since Dan would be adamantly against describing such experiences as emotional, while John is very comfortable with doing so), then it seems the difference is that John still reserves the right to be mad, to be upset, to feel his pain and the pain and others…whereas for Dan, the spiritual sense that gives him the sense of peace allows him to move forward constructively with the church even as he recognizes those things. (EDIT: originally, that last line said that the sense of peace “overcomes” those things.)

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  1. Parker permalink

    I think you are asking interesting questions about the world of spiritual experience. There are several challenges with trying to apprehend spirituality as a concept. One, language fails pretty quick. Two, there are a huge number of variables to account for our representation of what constitutes a spiritual experience (true of most human behaviors).

    Emotions, feelings (the Affective domain in psychology) do not come with labels. People interpret their emotional experience and assign meaning, or not, to them. The source of the experience, its value, and even its magnitude/worth is whatever the person assigns to the emotional experience.

    For a long time I thought that what I considered spiritual experiences were a result of my church membership/participation. But they continued after I was no longer participating. I may just have an active imagination, but I do credit the church for fostered that imagination and how I was to interpret anything that resembled a burning in the bosom. Now that particularly interpretation isn’t necessary, but I continue to value the experiences.

    As a side note, I just heard today that Leonard Bernstein said something to the effect that music, specifically Beethoven, elicited a deeper level of spirituality than organized religion ever can. I guess it depends upon which story you are most committed to. With music, though, you don’t have to pay as you go with specific beliefs and practices, proving your worthiness for such experiences. With music, you can just say, Wow!

  2. Parker,

    I agree that there are challenges with conceptualizing and operationalizing spirituality.

    Definitely, there’s a lot to say that one can have an experience, grant it a certain meaning, definition, etc., and that may not be what the actual explanation might be.

    That being said, it seems that certain ways of describing spirituality certainly can signal where an individual is at in their own life. For example, it seems to me that when Dan is quick to note people referring to it as “emotional experiences,” then he is interpreting that as a signal that the person is situating those experiences within a materialist/reductionist worldview (that Dan wants to challenge).

    Similarly, in your own example, processing spiritual experiences in connection with the church was a signal for your other beliefs and commitments about that church.

    The fact that you can have those same experiences from other sources than the church, however, doesn’t mean that they may just be “in your head” (e.g., emotional/psychological/etc., etc.,)…or even that the church therefore is or was not a valid place for inspiring those experiences.

    I mean, in another discussion on this site (on defending subjectivity in beauty, art, sound, etc.,) I am confronted with someone whose perspective as a Catholic is that all beauty comes from God, and so to the extent that we recognize different things as beautiful, that’s just our different recognitions of the goodness/Godliness within different things. So the quote that Beethoven might elicit a deeper level of spirituality than organized religion can become a LOT more complicated in that view.

    We might say that with music, you don’t have to “pay as you go,” but there are still certain practices and disciplines that might be required before you can appreciate certain music as well as other songs might be appreciated. (E.g., learning music theory can improve appreciation of a lot of music…whereas there are certainly other genres [e.g., pop] that do not necessarily require that deep discipline). In either case (paying as you go…spending the time to practice, study, etc.,) the rituals involved are just tools to prepare you.

    At least, I hope I am reading Agellius’s train of thought from that other discussion correctly……

  3. Parker permalink


    It seems to me you are saying what I said, more elegantly of course. Not to over simplify the complexity, but an experience within the affective domain requires one to employ the cognitive domain to interpret that experience. Our history does, of course, influence not only how we interpret those affective sensations, but whether we are open to them in certain ways and to certain extents. It is pretty common for people to overlay them as originating with God–“I’m filled with the glory of God,” on the one hand, whereas another is content to say, “I’m happy,” without having to attribute it to a higher power.

    In the end you are interpreting some warm heart experience. And if you are a committed Latter-day Saint you know that the Holy Ghost is the dispenser of warm feelings. And that becomes the framework for you to interpret your–whatever you wish to call it–experience.

  4. Parker,

    I agree that we are saying similar things. But I was trying to emphasize something: even if our explanations depend on our cognition to interpret and process, and even if our explanations could foreclose certain possibilities…those possibilities may nevertheless be what is happening.

    Like, in the end we may be interpreting some warm heart experience (or whatever it may be)…but it could certainly be true that that warm heart experience is not just a warm heart experience, but a sign of something external that we just *experience* through the warm heart.

  5. Parker permalink

    I think I see what you are saying, but give me an example.

  6. So, let’s use another (loaded) example.

    Suppose one hears a voice in his head.

    One explanation would be that this is internal…it is neurological/psychological/physiological. This narrative might call this a schizophrenic hallucination.

    Another explanation would be that these are external voices communicating to the person.

    Certainly both explanations depend on cognition to interpret and process. If one believes one narrative, then that forecloses the possibility of the other. And yet…it could be either case.

    It could be that the human brain is in some way a radio antenna, and what we call “schizophrenia” is attunement to some frequency of radio that most of us are not tuned to.

    …in a less loaded sense, spirituality could fit this same thing. The narrative of emotionality/cognitive bias/etc., forecloses the possibility that there is something “out there” that one could become attuned to, but that could be the reality of the situation.

    …yet, we don’t necessarily have a way to tell between the two narratives, because the only information we have direct access to is the voice (or the spiritual experience).

  7. Parker permalink


    I hear a voice in my head all the time–I’m talking to myself (and I even answer).

    As you say it requires a cognitive process, interpretation, to come up with the idea that the voice you hear is from a divine being, or radio free Mars if you will. Likewise it requires the same process, with or without logic or evidence, to conjecture, advocate, testify that there is a divine being who speaks to humans. It is possible, but once you go beyond the possible to the actual it does as you say pushes you into one narrative as opposed to another. (And it is amazing the efforts we go to keep our narratives intact–and some are far more difficult than others.)

    The law of parsimony says take the simplest narrative, which in this case is the voice you hear is yours, until you have sufficient evidence to go beyond it. I don’t see what is added to our understand for one to say what you experienced is a sugar rush, but, I, on the other hand recognize the true voice of God speaking to me, and overriding my natural man (person) tendencies. That sounds to much like, as Jesus puts it, the hypocrite standing on the corner thinking god he isn’t as other men.

  8. Parker,

    If what is actually happening is God is speaking to you, then even if that is not the simplest narrative, that could nevertheless be the correct method.

    I mean, if you have no knowledge or direct access to radio transmitter towers — you only have indirect access to them through radios that may be tuned to the right frequency or not — is it simpler to believe that radios themselves produce the sound that you hear, or to believe that they receive radio waves (though you may not know the source)?

    That’s the entire point — the “actual” is unknown, and we could foreclose pursuit of the actual based on our narratives. But this goes both ways — it seems you assume through law of parsimony that the actual would be that it’s your own voice. That could foreclose pursuing the possibility that it’s not.

    What could be “added to our understanding” is the idea that, if you pursue one method you get different results than if you dismiss it as simply your own understanding. I think that’s what’s Dan’s going for — even if you call it your own head, there is still a growing awareness under that model that there’s a difference between your mundane thoughts and these other sentiments. There’s a difference between your typical thoughts and these thoughts. In this way, even if you may not be able to pinpoint where it’s coming from, like with a radio, you can say, “Well, if I tune it to a certain part on the dial, though I don’t know where that’s coming from, I get sound…but if I tune it elsewhere, I get nothing.” Again, you haven’t proven one narrative over the other, but if you want sound, you can figure out what to do.

    I mean, if you actually *are* overriding your natural man (person) tendencies, that is something. It’s not just hypocrisy if there *are* different results (even if, yes, you don’t accomplish it perfectly). The details about various mystical experiences suggests that that sort of radical unity, openness, ego minimization or ego death, etc., really do change people’s perspectives in a lived experiential “overcoming the natural person” perspective.

    • Parker permalink


      Radios aren’t conjecture. I have the evidence right before me. Supernatural beings speaking to you is conjecture. That does’t mean that there is not a real gaggle of gods drinking ambrosia atop Mt Olympus, but in the absence of assurance I’m not willing to credit them or any of the gods many and lords many alternatives with the voice in my head or the feeling in my heart or loins if you prefer OT language.

      • But I’m using the radio example as a thought experiment. You are bringing in information that you do not have in the thought experiment. (And to be fair, I want you to bring that information at the end, but not during the experiment).

        Suppose you found a radio, but did not know what it was, how it operated, etc., You just knew that you could press a button, turn a knob, and at some point, out would come sound.

        From there, you could might think that the simplest explanation would be that the sound came from the device, and the device produced it on its own. That would be conjecture. Do you disagree with this? Just from within the thought experiment, do you disagree that that would be a reasonable conjecture?

        Certainly, you could argue even that this might fit law of parsimony for the information currently available to you, but it would still be conjecture.

        OK, now, step away from the thought experiment for just a moment. In this case, stepping away from the thought experiment, we know that that conjecture would not, in fact, be correct. As you note, radios aren’t conjecture. But that’s because you currently — outside of the thought experiment — know about transmission, modulation, etc.,

        Of course, if your conjecture is that the device is producing the sounds itself, then you might be satisfied with just trying to engineer or reverse engineer about the mechanics of the radio itself. You might feel satisfied knowing, in fact, that if you do x to the radio equipment itself, it will produce sound. “That proves it!” you may say. “The sound was from the radio itself!”

        I mean, this is basically where we are currently at on the psychological connection to spirituality. We say, “Well, here’s things you can do to a brain (e.g., God helmet) that will produce similar experiences, so then, that certainly seems to establish that this is just brain activity.”

        OK, fine.

        But that conjecture precludes you from investigating other options that may seem unlikely at first but which are correct. In the radio example. from outside of the thought experiment, you may protest: but as you get better understanding of the science behind radio broadcasting, modulation, etc., then you know there is a signal!

        Yes, but that’s once you have that conjecture. (I mean, in our case, the one real flaw is not this, though. It’s that: *we invented radios, but we didn’t invent ourselves*.) When you have that conjecture, that opens up the possibility of searching for a source of the signal, as it were.

        We are at a place where we have received a device that we didn’t invent, and that we are making conjectures about. Whether it’s a found radio or our own bodies, minds, (spirits?), who’s to say that there is not some sort of process via spirituality similar to radio broadcasting that we simply as of now do not recognize? In the same way that radio waves would have seemed invisible, intangible, imperceptible without the right tools — and were easily dismissed without the right conjecture, perhaps spirituality seems immaterial (if not nonexistent) or completely reducible to the internal reception of spiritual experiences) without the right tools — and is dismissed without the right conjecture.

        • Parker permalink


          Let’s set the radio analogy aside for the moment. What I hear you saying is that we hear a voice and that voice can be ours (within) or an external voice (supernatural). I completely agree with that, if indeed that is what you are saying.

          The radio analogy: We find a radio (of which we know nothing) and hear a voice and assume it comes from the box. We also could assume that there is an external source for the voice. At this point the analogy duplicates the human situation, as in the above paragraph.

          Where it breaks down is that I can submit the radio to empirical testing and determine the source of the voice. I can’t do that with the human situation–both the internal voice and the external voice remain conjectures.

          There is no question that we tend to take our conjectures, opinions, and treat them as absolute truths. But that is another issue. At the same time I’m not willing to discount that there is an external source for the voices I hear. However, since I have no evidence that that is occurring I will accept it my voice (we can spend time discussing what might prompt that inner voice other than an external divine being, but let’s don’t), until such time as I have evidence that there is a supernatural being speaking to me. And if the response is that I can know the existence of God because he will give me a warm heart, we are right back at the beginning. Although I will listen if someone wants to argue that God raised up Beethoven for the very purpose of me being taken by the spirit and immediately turning to God, who will open the door so that I may know the truth of all things. I will listen to that person and to Beethoven and see what happens.

          • What I hear you saying is that we hear a voice and that voice can be ours (within) or an external voice (supernatural).

            I think that’s a false dichotomy. It can be external without it being supernatural. (Everything we currently call spiritual could be totally natural, just we don’t know how to explain it currently. This is going to be important.)

            Where it breaks down is that I can submit the radio to empirical testing and determine the source of the voice. I can’t do that with the human situation–both the internal voice and the external voice remain conjectures. I can’t do that with the human situation–both the internal voice and the external voice remain conjectures.

            One, you can’t submit the *radio* to empirical testing and determine the source of the voice. You would need to test hypotheses about things *outside of the radio* (e.g., radio WAVES, a radio TRANSMITTER) to determine the source of the voice. You would need empirical testing on the *radio tower*, for example.

            Two, if you don’t have the appropriate tools to test for radio waves, and the radio tower/transmitter is not accessible, then you can’t empirically test, even if theoretically you could.

            I would say that is still similar to the human situation. That we do not *currently* have the appropriate tools to decide the final answer doesn’t mean that the final answer is not *theoretically* accessible. That just means it’s not practically accessible at this moment.

            There is no question that we tend to take our conjectures, opinions, and treat them as absolute truths.

            You don’t have to treat your conjecture or opinion as an absolute truth for my analogy to work.

            However, since I have no evidence that that is occurring I will accept it my voice (we can spend time discussing what might prompt that inner voice other than an external divine being, but let’s don’t), until such time as I have evidence that there is a supernatural being speaking to me.

            Our radio finder: “Since I have no evidence that this sound is coming from outside the radio, I will accept it is coming from within the radio (we can spend time discussing what might prompt that noise from the radio speakers other than an external source, but let’s don’t), until such time as I have evidence that there is an external source for the sound from the radio.”

            ^If our radio finder takes this approach, he has no reason or motivation to seek external explanations. These are more complicated than the simpler explanation that it comes from the radio speaker and that’s internal to the radio.

            Finding out anything else requires him to even provisionally hypothesize that it could be from elsewhere, that the truth is stranger than it appears at first, etc.,

          • Parker permalink

            I’m a bit confused. First, I thought you were distinguishing between Wotherspoon and Dehlin’s take on “spiritual” experience re a supernatural being. So what would you call a non-human external voice?

            Second, I am only interested in the world of conjecture (opinion, belief) compared to the world of evidence. It is obvious that many people choose to live in a world where they hope something is true, and they live a narrative based upon the possibility that it is true. I think you are doing a nice job of presenting their (your?) point of view.

  9. Parker,

    In my post, I had been distinguishing between Wotherspoon and Dehlin’s take on “spiritual” experience as being internal vs external. But even if it’s external, it does not need to be supernatural. (God is not supernatural, per se, especially in a Mormon context.)

    That being said, Dan had a comment on Facebook that is throwing me for a loop:

    I have never claimed these experiences are from God or some higher power. I reject a supernatural realm. My working hypothesis is that we are naturally embedded in deep contexts that are not accessible via our rational mind/intellect or five senses, and even though these experiences certainly do still contain some noetic quality (some sort of information) and register through our various body systems and have affiliated emotions, they are different. Whether aided by ritual practices or spontaneously, at times certain experiences have registered to me as qualitatively different than what I sense is being described (or “explained”) by psychology and other sciences. Flows of energy have entered in, I’ve lost the sense of my normal boundaries doing their focusing jobs, and these have registered to me so strongly and differently that I can truly recognize a before and after. I see and understand the world differently even though the experience wasn’t one primarily of seeing or understanding. It was simply being open and connected. I’ve felt emotion, wish fulfillment, biases confirmed, etc. None of that touches these pivotal experiences.

    Like, I’m still thinking that there’s a meaningful difference between “internal” and “external” in Dan’s message, even if he wouldn’t say “supernatural” (and perhaps wouldn’t pin it down on “God”)

    Second, I am only interested in the world of conjecture (opinion, belief) compared to the world of evidence. It is obvious that many people choose to live in a world where they hope something is true, and they live a narrative based upon the possibility that it is true.

    But it’s important that for these conjectures that I’m talking about it, both options are live. It’s not like someone says to themselves, “You know, I hope this is coming from God, and possibly that is true.” When someone believes that, that is what they believe.

    If you don’t believe what they believe, that is one thing. But you still have a set of conjectures there.

  10. Parker permalink

    Dan’s language resembles the language of eastern religion enlightenment. I’m happy to acknowledge Dan as enlightened..

    I’m not sure I understand you next to last paragraph as a response to my statement you quoted. I have not disagreed with you that the feelings and voices we hear may be external or internal. Nor have I said either option should be closed–or at least I personally wouldn’t close them. I am saying however, that both represent conjecture and both involve interpretation. Personally, I’m not going to spend a lot of time wondering (and creating a narrative to accommodate) if the external source is a fairy in the garden or a being who resides on a seer stone planet, or one who dwells in my heart. As I have said before parsimony dictates the simpler model–I’m a natural being in a natural world. Having said that, I add that we stand on a small island of knowledge, surrounded by a sea of mystery.

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