The Holy Ghost

Lately I’ve been thinking about a new way of conceptualizing the Holy Ghost.

Mormon tradition holds that the Holy Ghost is a disembodied person. There are myths that come and go about how it doesn’t have a body but that someday will be born and receive a body. And of course, it’s always conceptualized as male. There are people alive who claim to be the Holy Ghost incarnate.

However, some new ideas have been tickling my brain, and it starts with a scenario.

Imagine that you are in a totally dark room. There is no light whatsoever. You’re sitting down. You want to discover what’s in the room. How do you go about doing that? You stumble around, banging in to objects, cursing as you stub your toe against something. You sniff furiously, hoping that maybe you can smell something recognizable. Old leather, perhaps? And above all, you’re waving your arms wildly, smacking them in to things, then blindly tracing edges, feeling textures, and discerning shapes until you begin to form a rough picture of the world around you in your head.

As you blunder about, you find the rough extremes of the room. There are things on the walls, but you can’t tell what they are. They feel like boxes jutting out with sharp corners. You rap it with your knuckles. Glass? Metal, maybe? And as you’re inching your way from one wall to the opposite, there are obstacles in your way. Pedestals of some sort, again with sharp corners. Who puts pedestals in the middle of a room?

This is, of course, grossly inefficient. Obviously, the way to rectify this would be turn on a light, right?

A light turns on, and suddenly you can see! With this light comes the knowledge that you’re in a museum! The shapes were benches and exhibits and stanchions and trash cans and innumerable other things. And now, because you have light, you can understand. You can see that the big rectangle-ish things you felt on the wall were actually beautiful paintings, and as you stop to consider them, you weep at their beauty. Then you turn around and see that a dismembered body lies just over there, and you recoil in horror. You notice details. You see the patterns in the wallpaper, the colors of the stones in the ground, the textures of the paint on the art behind glass. There are an infinite number of things you could never have felt with your hands, but can now see with your eyes.

What does this have to do with the Holy Ghost? The Holy Ghost is the light. It is the photons. It is what brought the knowledge to you. In the words of Nephi, “the Holy Ghost carrieth [the spoken words] unto the hearts of the children of men” (2 Ne 33:1). You receive information by the Holy Ghost. It’s like a spiritual Google Fiber internet connection. If you’re plugged in, you can get truth as fast as you can receive it. (Otherwise you’re limited to the dial-up speeds of the Light of Christ 😉)

When you are “in tune with the Spirit”, you are plugged in to the Source of Truth, and you can learn anything. But most of us fail to make that connection. Or we do, but our preconceived notions of what truth is block us from receiving the actual truth. We put up spiritual “content filters” and by so doing, restrict what we are willing to hear from God.

When we talk about the Holy Ghost, we talk a lot about the “warm fuzzies”, a euphemism for the idea that the Holy Ghost causes “that your bosom shall burn within you” (D&C 9:8). But I’m pretty certain that Nephi did not feel warm fuzzies when he learned he needed to decapitate Laban. Nor did Abraham feel the warm fuzzies as he trudged up Moriah with Isaac in tow.

Here’s a different way of looking at that “bosom burning” that’s happening: that is your body’s way of reacting to what it is learning. For every person, the feeling will be different, and (this is important) the feeling depends on what you are learning.

Going back to the example above, the information that you learned influenced your emotions. When you saw the painting, you were filled with joy and rapture and awe as you contemplated its majesty and subtlety. But when you saw the body, you were disgusted and offended and sickened. In each case, the reaction matches the information.

Here’s a more personal example: our family has decided to make some changes recently in our personal situation. We know that these changes are right for us, and yet they sicken me. I am utterly dismayed and horrified that we have to make these changes. I definitely feel nothing close to “warm fuzzies” as I contemplate them. But the reality is that the changes are the will of God.

  • The truth is that the changes are necessary.
  • The Holy Ghost is how I learned the truth.
  • The disgust is my reaction to it.

And yet, it is of God.

The Holy Ghost is the agent by which we learn truth. It carries words to our hearts, and we (hopefully) let those words sink deep into our soul. But the mechanism by which we learn is a tertiary thing: what matters more are who is trying to teach us and what they are trying to teach us. We should want to always have the Holy Ghost with us. But that is not the goal. The goal is to always be learning, and we want the Holy Ghost because that is how we learn.

I no longer believe that the Holy Ghost is a person. I think it’s a thing. It’s spiritual light. Just as we see in this world by physical light, we see in the next by spiritual light.

Come, let us open our eyes and behold the glory of God.


The Third Person

I’ve been studying the Book of Ether recently, and I came across a verse again that has always bothered me:

“I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.” (Ether 3:8)

This verse bothered me because I couldn’t figure out why it was in the third person. The Brother of Jared is having this theophany, so why doesn’t he use “you” or “thou”? Why is it “he”? As I studied these verses more, I found the answer, and it is very subtle and faith-affirming.

Let’s consider this experience from the point of view of the Brother of Jared.

In the first verse, he hikes up the mountain carrying his sixteen small stones. He is alone. When he gets to the appointed place, he begins to pray, calling upon the Lord to favor his petition. He is still alone, and he prays until the end of verse five.

In verse six, the Brother of Jared finishes his prayer, and he is still alone. This is when he starts to feel something pressing on the stones he holds, and by the sixteenth stone, he sees a finger.

When he sees the finger, he falls down in shock, afraid that he has seen something he shouldn’t have seen, and perhaps wondering how he could stand to see a finger so glorious and not be consumed by fire. The finger, presumably, has disappeared.

In the midst of this confusion and shock, the Brother of Jared (who is still alone) hears a voice: “Arise! Why hast thou fallen?”

The Brother of Jared has no idea who is talking. From his point of view, he saw a finger and is now hearing a voice. He assumes the finger belongs to the Lord, because that’s the person to whom he’s been praying. But the voice? He has no context for knowing the owner of the voice, and responds ambiguously, using the third person:

I saw the finger of the Lord…

After this, the voice identifies itself:

I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger.

The voice identifies itself as belonging to the same person who owns the finger, namely the Lord. At this point, with proof as to the identify of the person with whom he has been speaking, the Brother of Jared can appropriately switch to the second person:

Lord, show thyself unto me.

To me, this subtlety is exquisite. We as readers of course know the identity of the voice; Moroni is very explicit throughout the whole sequence that the owner of the finger is the same person who owns the voice. That extra detail he includes is actually the source of the confusion; had he left it out, this question would never have arisen.

I read this, and I think: could an uneducated farm boy have caught that detail, if he were making this up?