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Being a Squib in a Magical World

July 24, 2018

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk a bit about one of my favorite subjects: what it’s like growing up in a religion that prioritizes spiritual experiences when you yourself have never experienced anything of the sort.

To put it simply, Mormonism has a form of belief voluntarism built in — if you work hard enough and have real enough intent, you should be able to get your own prayer as to the truth of Mormonism. This sort of thing assumes that anyone who is serious about praying, fasting, etc., will inevitably have a spiritual experience, and that this spiritual experience will confirm Mormonism to them.

The best thing about this system is that it builds its own out right into it. If you don’t get a confirmatory message, does that mean Mormonism is false? No! It means you didn’t try hard enough, or you didn’t have real enough intent!

So, yeah, that totally messed with me when I was growing up.

In dealing online with communities of people coming to grips with the historical and theological issues of Mormonism (but who still want to make Mormonism work), I still often find myself having a fundamentally different experience than many of them. For many of the others, these are people who had what they felt to be profound spiritual experiences but who are now unsure of how to interpret these experiences in light of newfound facts that seem to call their previous interpretation into question. (That is, if someone can have a spiritual experience confirming something that is factually or historically inaccurate, then what does that say about spiritual experiences?)

Usually, in groups where people are trying to continue to make Mormonism (or religion in general) work after a faith crisis, there will therefore be a lot of conversation about recontextualizing those experiences — to point out that the experiences could still point to something real even if one’s interpretation, or to point out that one can learn greater spiritual truths in the struggle. For example, if God is ineffable, then of course trying to pin down spiritual experiences into words would be bound to miss the mark.

But the problem is these conversations still presume spiritual experiences in the first place.

I’ve tried to interrogate people who talk about having profound spiritual experiences down — not to try to disprove their experiences, or to rationalize them, but just to understand more of what it’s like, since their experiences are so foreign to mine.

In many cases, we get to a standstill where we’re not really able to see eye to eye. (Yeah, this also happens on discussions on belief voluntarism itself. It turns out that people who think they choose to believe something are entirely resistant to having that reclassified deterministically, haha.) To me, the persistence of the standstill has helped me to more fully appreciate how different we are. We aren’t really experiencing or doing the same things at all, are we?

But something has been happening in some of these conversations that bothers me a little bit is that my interlocutors are increasingly conceding that probably not everyone will have profound spiritual experiences and that’s OK.

Huh? Why is that a bad thing for them to admit?

So, it seems to me that when people were trying to convince me that if I just did x, y, and z, then I’d experience something magical, then that sucked because even when I did x, y, and z, it didn’t happen. (And different people have proposed a variety of other things instead of x, y, and z, without much success.) But even though that sucked, it at least gave the feeling that this might be something in my control. That if I just found the right techniques and practices, then maybe it could work for me.

But the alternative — that these things are not chosen — even though it seems to fit my data, it just feels like a loss or a disappointment.

The analogy I’d use is the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Being a muggle is fine. You live without knowing anything about magic and so it never bothers you.

Being a wizard is, of course, magical. Like, can you imagine living in the muggle world and then finding out you’re a wizard! So awesome.

But being a Squib — a muggle born to wizarding parents, therefore intimately aware of the magical world but unable to engage it — seems like the worst of all worlds.

And while it would probably be better for wizard parents and friends to accept the Squibs in their lives as being no worse off for having no magical ability, I have to imagine that most Squibs would rather hold out on the possibility that there’s something they can do to stoke magical talent than simply concede that they are nonmagical.

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6 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    “But being a Squib — a muggle born to wizarding parents, therefore intimately aware of the magical world but unable to engage it — seems like the worst of all worlds.”

    I love that analogy. : )

    I had that experience too, of being told that if I read the BOM and prayed with a sincere heart, I would receive confirmation that Mormonism was true. I almost said “spiritual confirmation”, but I’m not sure if “spiritual” is the word since it was usually phrased in physical terms, like the burning in the bosom. More recently, Mormons have described it to me as simply receiving knowledge that something is true; suddenly knowing it, with absolute certainty and without the shadow of a doubt.

    It strikes me that this contradicts the idea of agency being essential to the Mormon religion. If you suddenly come to know something, not of your own power, but rather knowledge is infused into you, doesn’t that violate agency? You’re not acquiring this knowledge in the usual way, according to your natural capacities, rather it’s being put there by some outside force; and it’s apparently irresistible, in the sense of being undoubtable; it overcomes any capacity you might have for being skeptical about it.

    But in any event, the idea of having a “spiritual experience” which confirms the truth of a religion or a doctrine, I think is foreign to Christianity. Not that Christians don’t have spiritual experiences, and that those experiences don’t confirm the truth of Christianity to them, but that it was never the normative manner of confirming the truth of the faith and, as far as I know, is not essential to having faith.

    Of course this depends on how you define a “spiritual experience”. The reception of any of the sacraments is a spiritual experience, and they are essential to the faith. But the truth and validity of that kind of experience are not dependent on having a conscious awareness of being affected by spiritual powers in some way.

    I believe that I have had conscious spiritual experiences, but I always know that it’s my choice whether or not to attribute them to spiritual powers. I’m aware that they could have other causes. Some of them may have been genuine, others may have been emotional responses to something. If I ever lost my faith I would not be at a loss to account for them, any more than I am now. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that some of them have been genuine, but it’s not something that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and my faith doesn’t depend on it.

  2. Agellius,

    The interesting thing is that Mormons will still preserve agency no matter what the implications. So, Mormons will reject that acquiring knowledge through spiritual experience is irresistible — even if I point out Saul’s conversion to Paul (which certainly doesn’t seem chosen/voluntary to me), the Book of Mormon’s Alma the younger (similar situation…doesn’t seem voluntary to me), they will still insist that Paul and Alma could have chosen to doubt the experiences they had.

    …but I will point out that I think this fits for traditional Christianity as well (hence why I mention Saul/Paul too). I’d love your thoughts on how you’d see Saul’s conversion to Paul as anything other than “having a “spiritual experience” which confirms the truth of a religion or doctrine” because I am not creative enough to imagine it any differently.

    • Agellius permalink

      The story of Saul’s conversion basically goes like this: He was on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus. On his way, he sees a flash of light and falls down. He hears Jesus’ voice speaking to him, identifying himself and saying, “Why are you persecuting me?”, and telling him to go into the city where he will be told what to do. Also he is struck blind. Meanwhile, Ananias sees a vision in which he is told to go to Saul and heal his eyes, which he does. It’s only after this that we hear Saul has definitely been converted to the faith, since he starts preaching.

      I’m not sure that there is anything involuntary in any of this. It doesn’t say that Saul immediately became a Christian, only that he was knocked down and blinded, and later healed. There is nothing to indicate that knowledge was involuntarily inserted into Saul’s mind. It seems like these occurrences served the same purpose that Jesus’ other miracles served, which was to provide tangible evidence that he was who he claimed to be, namely God. In spite of this, not everyone who saw the miracles was converted; they still left room for doubt. Saul happens to be one who found them convincing and was willing to follow Jesus as a result. This is different from receiving a “witness” with internal physiological manifestations which provides certainty beyond doubt.

  3. Agellius,

    In spite of this, not everyone who saw the miracles was converted; they still left room for doubt. Saul happens to be one who found them convincing and was willing to follow Jesus as a result.

    I think this is a fair point, but the conversion or lack of conversion still doesn’t seem to be voluntary to me. That is, there’s nothing there to suggest that finding miracles to be convincing is a choice.

    I knooooow you disagree with this. We’ve been back and forth on this many times, lol.

    This is different from receiving a “witness” with internal physiological manifestations which provides certainty beyond doubt.

    I’m not entirely sure about this. Can you parse out what difference there is between a witness with internal physiological manifestations and hearing Jesus’ voice speaking to him would be — I mean, in either case, someone may interpret these things one way or another.

    I think you’re possibly overstating what the Mormon spiritual witness is. I think — especially because Mormons are committed to doxastic voluntarism — that Mormons would be inclined to think that spiritual experiences are never so strong as to be undeniable. So from an orthodox Mormon perspective, there’s always room for a choice. Even if colloquially, it gets interpreted as experience that confirms the truth of the religion.

    And i mean, the Book of Mormon also goes to people who seem to share “witnesses” but who continually seem to “forget” about these — thinking about Laman and Lemuel vs Nephi.

    • Agellius permalink

      “I think this is a fair point, but the conversion or lack of conversion still doesn’t seem to be voluntary to me. That is, there’s nothing there to suggest that finding miracles to be convincing is a choice.”

      Fair enough. That some find miracles convincing and others don’t, might not be a matter of choice on their part. All I’m saying is that a miracle does not per se force one to convert, as evidenced by the fact that not everyone who witnesses a miracle converts, and some convert without witnessing a miracle.

      “I think you’re possibly overstating what the Mormon spiritual witness is.”

      You could be right, and I won’t insist on my position as a doctrinal matter. It’s mostly based on discussions I’ve had with Mormons where they emphasize the difference between believing something and *knowing* it. Someone once said to me that at one time he believed Brigham Young was a prophet, but then one day the Holy Spirit bore witness to it and then he *knew* he was a prophet (his emphasis). I take this to represent the difference between believing something you can’t see with your own eyes, and knowing something that you have seen with your own eyes – in Mormonism you don’t literally see the truth with your eyes, yet somehow the knowledge of it is put into you so that it’s as certain as having seen it with your eyes.

      When I talk about choosing to believe things, I’m not referring to things that we can perceive with our senses, or that are so simple that we can reason from A to B with no fear of error. I’m talking about things that we can’t know for sure because they could be one thing or they could be another. In that case we can choose which one to believe. But if knowledge of it is certain, then choice is no longer applicable. You can’t choose to know something, nor can you choose to doubt something that you know. So, insisting that you *know* something rather than merely believe it, to me connotes that you can’t help but accept it as true.

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