Monday, June 9, 2008

Quibbling about the Holy Ghost and Walking on the Moon

On the way home from Church last Sunday my ten year old daughter and I had the following exchange:

Me: What happened in Sunday school today?

Ruby: We had a lesson about the Holy Ghost.

Me: Do you believe in the Holy Ghost?

Ruby: Yes.

Me: So how do you know the Holy Ghost is real?

Ruby: Well, kind of like how I know that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I haven’t met him but I know he was a real person who walked on the moon. Or it’s like how I know Mars exists, I can’t see it but I know it’s there.

Me: I don’t think a person knows those things in the same way they know about the Holy Ghost. Neil Armstrong’s walk on the Moon and the existence of Mars are scientifically provable, but when you know there is a Holy Ghost, you know it in a different way – in a way that is not provable.

Ruby: Daddy, this isn’t very interesting, can you turn on the radio?

Upon reflection, I wonder if I handled this in the right way. I wonder about the following:

Is it a mistake to question how a child comes to know a spiritual truth? Is the assertion of spiritual knowledge good enough in and of itself, especially in a ten year old?

Did I do the right thing in attempting to help her understand the difference between spiritual and scientific knowledge as I see it?

Is it even accurate of me to say that spiritual and scientific knowledge are different? Are they close enough that is not worth quibbling over? Am I just splitting hairs?

Am I doing her a favor by preparing her for a later time when, I assume, she will compare empirical knowledge with spiritual knowledge? And as a result of my conditioning she will be less likely to be disillusioned and reject spiritual beliefs? Or am I simply prepping my daughter to become a secular humanist?

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I would have handled it the same way. I have often found myself in that same situation. Should I explain the science/hard facts of a thing or should I let my children explore these ideas for themselves. The earlier one comes to the knowledge that our theology is not totally based on the spiritual. The better. I am a very scientificaly/ logicaly based mind. I hope my kids will look at the world and our family's faith with eyes that are open. If we don't allow this freedom to compare science and faith I feel that the next generation will not fully think for themselves. This being said I do know that there are things still yet to be explained by science.

Fifthgen said...

I admire your conscientious approach to this topic. It would be easy to go along with the Neil-Armstrong-on-the-moon metaphor as "good enough." I think, however, that parents should teach their children how to understand spiritual things, and how spiritual knowledge is obtained. That said, I am not sure the best way to do it. I do not remember anyone ever sitting me down to explain that there is intellectual knowledge and experiential knowledge, and that that we learn different things in different ways. But I remember having arrived at that conclusion by early adulthood. As a parent, I think it would be great to help my kids on their path to gain that understanding. I guess you try to find age-appropriate ways to talk about different kinds of knowledge. Maybe start with how they know that their parents love them, and vice versa - - that seems like a better comparison than Neil Armstrong, but you could even compare and contrast the two kinds of facts. In the end, the specifics will depend upon the age and individual characteristics of the child.

Mormon Heretic said...

John Dehlin did an excellend podcast on this very topic a while back at

Basically, he interviews Tom Kimball about the "stages of faith", which he compares to psychological and educational development. Tom makes the case that we shouldn't rush people through the various stages. (And it sounds like John wants to rush his kids through, similar to the way you do.) Anyway, I'm no expert, but you should listen to it. I think Tom's advice would be that some of these faith stories are needed for normal development, and don't rush your children to catch up to you too soon.

Rubymainia said...

Not the exact story!...I'm kinda impressed.

pb said...

So Ruby, what is the REAL story?

jupee said...

If the holy ghost isn't real and you equate it to a parents love, then aren't you kind of setting yourself up? I guess they really do stand (or fall) together, don't they.

Fifthgen said...

jupee: Perhaps your comment is tongue-in-cheek, but I don't think the two ideas stand or fall together. In a discussion with my child, my love for her would be presented as an incontrovertible fact (I really think that is best, don't you? Plus it is true.). But, I would use it as an example to discuss how you can know something is real, even though it cannot be perceived by the senses or proven by the scientific method, historical evidence, etc. In this discussion, the reality of my love for my child would not depend upon the reality or non-reality of other ideas.

The Faithful Dissident said...

I bet I would have said the same thing that you did. However, when I think about it, I wonder if it would have been better to ask her if she thought that a person knows about The Holy Ghost the same way as about Neil Armstrong. As adults, we tend to forget that it has taken us many years to get to the mindset and opinions that we have now, whether it's for better or worse. I like thought-provoking questions and I think they're especially useful for teaching kids because they require them to think and work out problems for themselves. Perhaps if you had asked her what she thought, instead of telling her what you thought, she'd be thinking more about her own thoughts and opinions than yours, which even though they may be right, are still yours.

But I don't have kids, so who am I to give advice? :) I bet you're doing a great job, Sanford.

pb said...

Knowing that a subjective experience such as the experience of love for your child is real is not, in my view, the same as knowing that an entity outside yourself, such as (presumably) the holy ghost, is real. The former is an emotion that you experience and can verify through your experience of it -- though it may not be verifiable objectively. The latter -- unless we are to assume is also a subjective experience that exists only within yourself -- should be verifiable objectively, if in fact it exists. I don't believe in ghosts -- holy or otherwise -- because I have come across no credible evidence of their existence. I believe in my love for my children because I experience it. Since its my love, which I do not claim exists in any way but within me, then my experience of it is all the evidence that is required. When it comes to a ghost, more is required, because the ghost is supposedly something that exists outside of me. I have no difficulty with the reality of spiritual experiences; they are as real as love, and verifiable in the same way as love, but let's not confuse spiritual experiences with actual entities, such as ghosts.

Fifthgen said...

Hmm. Are we having a conversation with a child about how she can understand spiritual things? Or, are we trying to prove, as a scientific fact, whether the Holy Ghost exists? I thought it was the former. So, I still think the love metaphor works ok for that purpose. Obviously, love is different from the Holy Ghost, and the exploration of those differences might also be instructive in the discussion with the child. That's what makes it such a good pedagogical tool!

paul maurice martin said...

My tendency would be to mainly let the questions come from the child.

In your case, it sounds like you're already in the process of exposing Ruby both to a religious education and the difference between faith and empirical knowledge. To my mind, that's all true and valid, and what she does with it as she comes into her own will develop outside of your control.

pb said...

I understood from Sanford's post that he was attempting to communicate with his daughter about the difference between knowing something like the planet Mars exists and knowing something like the holy ghost exists. I was simply expanding on that discussion. There is as important a distinction to be made between knowing that love exists and knowing that the holy ghost exists. I would hope we would all teach our children that it is important to think. Part of thinking, for me, is trying to understand distinctions such as these. So I would certainly talk about that with my children.

I have noticed with my children that they tend to believe (at least at this tender age) whatever I believe, which is quite profound, actually, in that it drives home how awesome a parent's responsibility is. I try to discourage them from swallowing whole every idea that I might spout out, and instead to learn to think about why it is that they might believe or not believe that particular thing. And I have also found it to be quite a challenge with my children to guide them away from a wholly good and bad view of all things. Because I have supported Barack Obama in the primaries, for instance, they have completely demonized Hillary Clinton, which I have found to be a bit distressing. This is all to say that children are indeed quite vulnerable in their predisposition to glom onto beliefs, and to even extremize those beliefs. As parents I therefore think that the greatest service we can render to our children is to teach them how to think, so that hopefully as they mature they can sift through those beliefs that are sound and reasonable and reject those that are not.

Sanford said...

I guess what I am trying to do with Ruby is help her understand that I don’t think a spiritual belief (the existence of the Holy Ghost) and a temporal belief (the existence of Mars) are knowable in the same manner. When I was Ruby’s age I would not have seen a distinction between the two types of knowledge and I think that many of the people she is around in the Mormon church don’t distinguish between the two. In fact, a high councilman spoke in my ward some time ago and talked about how his knowledge of the truth of the gospel is every bit a real as his knowledge of things of this earth. I am not picking a fight with him on this, but I see things in a different manner and I feel that is my prerogative to raise my daughter in a manner that fits my understanding of the world.

I think most Mormon parents want to raise their children with a strong belief/knowledge of the truth of the LDS Church. But if I can flip this on its head for a minute, I want to raise Ruby in way in which she doesn’t disallow the possibility of such a belief. I think that what we know is a product of what we are exposed to and our knowledge is ever mutating and changing. Many many people that I greatly respect have a connection to spiritual knowledge that I don’t. I think of myself as having very modest spiritual talents but do not discount those abilities in others. And it may be that Ruby will have a stronger connection with the spiritual world. I don’t want her to be in a place where she can’t run with that if she feels so inclined. But I am afraid that is she equates spiritual and temporal knowledge, one day she might toss out the spiritual component because of the inability to prove it the way you can empirical knowledge.

In this blog entry I was addressing the existence of the Holy Ghost, but really I think I am conceptualizing a broader notion of having a belief in or a connection with the otherworld. By otherworld I mean an unseen world that is beyond conventional perception or reality. In Mormonism, we have many connections with and discussions about the otherworld. We just use our own vocabulary and experience to discuss them. But even for commenters on this blog who have no belief in Mormonism or Christianity or God for that matter, is a belief or a connection to the otherworld an unwise or unsound thing? Is not a child helped by allowing for the possibility of such a connection? Or is the Holy Ghost just a ghost?

pb said...

I'm all in with you Sanford, except the very small point -- and maybe it doesn't matter -- that I would not equate "spiritual belief" with the existence of another world or the existence of supernatural entities or whether or not "the Church is true" or whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet or any other such claims. I think there is danger in so doing that is the same as the danger that you are identifying, i.e., one can risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater if the supernatural or religious component comes to be rejected. Nor would I discount the idea that some people may be in tune with a "sixth sense" kind of phenomenon. But I would not equate such heightened sensitivity to heightened spirituality. In my view, heightened spirituality consists of highly developed capacities of love, compassion, sense of interconnectedness with all beings and the natural world, and the ability to see clearly beyond one's limited self interests. These skills, like other skills, can be developed. But I would not link the cultivation of these skills to any knowledge or belief system, but simply to practice and discipline. Which is not to say that one cannot have belief systems that coincide with the development of these skills, but such belief systems are, in my view neither necessary nor, often, particularly helpful. So I guess I'm saying that I would not discourage or attempt to cut off my child's "knowledge" of other worlds if the same were being manifested, but I would not equate such knowledge with the cultivation of spirituality. To me, it's like the difference between knowing all about music and being able to play it. No knowledge of Beethoven is going to help you play his music if you have not developed that skill, and while there may be some value in being able to talk about or "know" the music, it does not approximate the value of being able to play it -- at least in my book. And that could be because I enjoy listening to music, but I don't much enjoy listening to people pontificate (unless its my own self talking, of course).

Fifthgen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fifthgen said...

Sanford asks: Is a belief or a connection to the otherworld an unwise or unsound thing? Is not a child helped by allowing for the possibility of such a connection?

As one who believes in an unseen, spiritual force outside myself (i.e., God), I think that helping a child understand how to develop a connection with that force is not only helpful and wise, it is important. Sanford has identified a central issue by asking how that connection is experienced and understood. For those who believe in God, spirituality is not just about living ethically in or harmoniously with this world; it is very much about connecting with and understanding our relationship with Him.

I like pb’s music metaphor and think it demonstrates an important point: It takes some empirical knowledge to learn to play music, but a true musician also understands that there is an intangible quality to good music that cannot really be described or understood empirically - - it has to be experienced either by playing or listening. The empirical and experiential knowledge are complementary. More importantly, it takes practice and experience to really understand the spiritual (although pb and I have different views of what “the spiritual” is). You can read books and talk about connecting with God, but that only takes you so far. At some point you have to sit at the piano and play.

Anonymous said...

The landing on the moon was a hoax. How can you prove it wasn't?

pb said...

Fifthgen, I have done a poor job of defining my concept of "the spiritual" if it is seen as rejecting a connection with a force outside ourselves that is larger than ourselves. I wholeheartedly embrace this view of spirituality, and I also believe that making this connection is essential to a spirituality that is much deeper than mere ethics. Many call this "force" God, and I am also comfortable calling it God, for purposes of conversation. But I believe it is unknowable, undefinable, uneverythingable. I don't believe it is locked up in scripture, religious doctrine, or metaphysical definitions that we, as humans invent to try to get our mind around it. So when I say I don't believe in God, I guess in a way I do, but I just don't believe in a God that is defined, in any way, by anything, including human language or understanding. Yet I believe it (or He, if you insist, because how God is labeled doesn't change what it is) is accessible and can be experienced. I would still want my children, if they were to have such experiences, to not equate these experiences with the conclusion that, for instance, the limited God of the bible is therefore "real," anymore than I would want them to equate these experiences with the belief that the Gods of greek mythology, or any other gods that humans have invented over the millenia, are therefore real. That's all.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Sanford, just wanted to say hey and long time no hear! :) I've been missing your thought-provoking posts, not to mention your comments on my own blog. Hope you aren't suffering from writer's block!

Hope you're having a great summer so far. :)