By Roger Terry
Roger Terry is editorial director at BYU Studies and author of fiction and nonfiction books, short stories, serious articles, essays, and editorials. He blogs at mormonomics.blogspot.com.
Or download the audio file here: The Tongue of Angels or the Mind of the Borg?
On 30 May 1977, I was nearing the end of my mission to northern Germany. I was serving in West Berlin at the time, an island of hope in a sea of despair, and was working that day with Elder Johnson.1 He wasn’t my companion, but I wished he were. Elder Stillman was driving me nuts. Elder Johnson and I didn’t have an appointment scheduled. In fact, we were supposed to go to the opera with the other missionaries in the district. But we didn’t feel like seeing an opera, so we worked, and at 8:00 we dropped in on Herr and Frau Ortmann, a middle-aged couple who had left a note on their door for us that afternoon saying that something had come up and they would not be home for our early appointment. Stillman and I had met the Ortmanns while tracting and had taught them the first discussion. It was nothing special. They had listened politely to our message about Joseph Smith and the Restoration and had accepted our offer to teach them about the plan of salvation, even though we could tell they were not seriously interested.
When we knocked on their door that evening, though, they happened to be home and invited us in. The four of us took seats around their kitchen table, and after engaging in some small talk, we opened with prayer. Back in the 1970s, missionaries still memorized the discussions and presented them pretty much verbatim, and since I had been in the mission field for nearly two years, I knew them very well. In fact, when I would present the various concepts, I could see the pages of the discussion book in my mind and would mentally turn the pages as I taught.
But on this particular evening, the Lord had something different prepared for Herr and Frau Ortmann—and for me. Elder Johnson and I alternated concepts in the D discussion, and the Spirit grew stronger and stronger as we taught. After Johnson finished the fourth concept, I opened my mouth to speak, but I never made it to D-5. Suddenly the Spirit took charge. It was as if the Lord reached out his hand and simply closed the discussion book in my mind. And as the book closed, a conduit opened—a spiritual connection between me and the Ortmanns. I had never experienced anything like this before, and I have not experienced anything similar in the forty years since. Somehow I knew what they were thinking. I knew the questions they wanted to ask before they even had a chance to ask them. And using my voice, the Spirit gave them the answers they desired. I felt like a spectator as my voice taught them concepts I had never before understood. I knew without a doubt that the words I spoke specifically answered the questions and doubts they harbored in their hearts. A beautiful spirit filled the room, and the Ortmanns were visibly moved.
Afterward, as Elder Johnson and I walked back to the subway station, I felt as if I were descending through clouds until my feet once more touched the earth. And as the Spirit slowly faded, so did my memory of what had been taught. By the time we reached the station, all I could remember was that the Spirit had taught them something about developing faith and planting seeds and reaping a harvest. I knew the Lord had pleaded with them to plant a seed in their own hearts, but I could no more have repeated the insights the Spirit shared with the Ortmanns than I could have torn down with my bare hands the Berlin Wall that composed three sides of my tracting area.
I recorded later that evening in my journal that Elder Johnson “freaked out.” He raved about the discussion, saying it was the best D he had ever been part of. And I pondered the sincere comment Herr Ortmann had made as we left their house: “Before you came, I had decided I wasn’t going to invite you back again, but what was taught this evening touched me deeply.” He did invite us back. And although they didn’t join the Church at that time or, to my knowledge, at any subsequent date, I knew that for some reason the Lord had reached out in a special way to this family. Or maybe he was reaching out to me. I can’t say.
I have thought about this incident many times since that day. I have heard of missionaries who experience such teaching moments often, but for me it was a singular experience. I came to know that day how personally, how intimately the Lord knows us, how precisely he can tailor a message to the needs of the hearers—if the mind and heart of the servant is in tune. I learned that evening that there is a difference between teaching true doctrine that the Spirit then confirms and having the Spirit actually use your mouth to teach truths that the listeners specifically need.
I suppose this is what Nephi referred to as speaking with the tongue of angels. “Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost? Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do” (2 Nephi 32:2–3). The Spirit certainly told the Ortmanns what they should do.
The Lord promised Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon such teaching moments: “Therefore, verily I say unto you, lift up your voices unto this people; speak the thoughts that I shall put into your hearts, and you shall not be confounded before men; for it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say” (D&C 100:5–6). He also gave Joseph and six elders who had just returned from their missions this instruction: “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85).
President Marion G. Romney once said, “I always know when I am speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost because I always learn something from what I have said.”2 I know this is true. The words my mouth spoke to the Ortmanns contained knowledge of a higher order than I had yet contemplated.
But this experience has also raised questions in my mind as I have grown older—disconcerting questions. Without a doubt, this was one of the highlights of my mission, an exhilaratingly spiritual experience that filled me at the time with joy and peace and, in retrospect, with unanswered questions. It has occurred to me that this may be one of a very few times in my life when the Lord has infringed upon my agency. Yes, I agreed when I accepted the call that I would be at his disposal; I would be his tool—generally a very dull tool, but a tool nonetheless. On this particular occasion, what that meant is that he was able to use my body—my mouth, in particular—to give two of his children a message he wanted them to hear. But those weren’t my words my mouth was speaking. I was nothing more than a fascinated bystander, a totally passive instrument, not so different from, say, a radio tuned perfectly, though temporarily, to transmit a message that originated somewhere far away.
I have wondered at times if this experience was somehow similar to Joseph Smith’s adventure “translating” the Book of Mormon or dictating revelations. Linguist Royal Skousen, who has spent more than a quarter century studying the Book of Mormon manuscripts and printings, is convinced that Joseph was receiving the English translation word for word. If true, then we might well ask who actually translated the book. It wouldn’t have been Joseph. He would have been nothing more than an instrument, a radio tuned to a heavenly frequency. The translation he dictated would not have required any decision-making participation on his part. After a fair amount of study, I think I mostly agree with Royal, but even if Joseph was receiving specific ideas and needed to find appropriate English words to express them with, he still wasn’t really translating, not in the same sense that I was translating when I labored over Theodor Storm’s novella Immensee, converting the story from German to English. I have wondered whether the Spirit used a perfect German accent and perfect grammar when it used my mouth to teach the Ortmanns. My accent was near native anyway, and my grammar was excellent, so chances are good that the message the Ortmanns received was in fairly flawless German. But the words were not mine. If Joseph’s words were not his, then whoever they did belong to spoke either a grammatically imperfect King James English or some idiosyncratic early modern dialect that is to this point unidentifiable. Which convinces me that God was not the translator. Certainly he wouldn’t employ the sort of haphazard usage we find in the Book of Mormon. So who did translate the book? Whose words was Joseph dictating? I have my suspicions, but I have divulged those elsewhere.3 And whose words, exactly, was I speaking? Perhaps the words of Christ?
I don’t know, but other questions, darker questions, have seeped out of that evening with the Ortmanns that was otherwise overflowing with light. I have read several accounts of near-death experiences in which the near-dead person has moved on to a spiritual existence where communication is completely nonverbal. This type of communication is exactly what Orson Pratt predicted for the afterlife: “For instance; how do you suppose that spirits after they leave these bodies, communicate one with another? Do they communicate their ideas by the actual vibrations of the atmosphere the same as we do? I think not.”4 Pratt proposed an advanced form of communication in which a spirit could impart not just one train of thought but numerous ideas directly to other spirits. If the NDE accounts and Pratt are right, then spiritual communication is perfectly telepathic; spirits are able to share each other’s thoughts. But other experiences people have had with the dearly departed suggest that they do indeed speak in audible voices. So the evidence, what little there is, is ambiguous. After contemplating the conduit that opened between my mind and the Ortmanns’, however, I am inclined to believe that telepathy is indeed possible. I knew what my investigators were thinking that evening. And it was a marvelous, if slightly eerie, feeling. The burden of words was stripped away. The Spirit still used my mouth to express the message God wanted them to hear, but they didn’t have to ask me any questions. I already knew what they were thinking, and I’m sure the Spirit conveyed a very direct message to their spirits. What this means, of course, is that God also knew what they were thinking—what I am thinking. But what I learned that evening was how intimately God knows each of us. He can judge us only because he knows everything about us, even the innermost thoughts of our hearts.
Which brings up several questions about the premortal existence, and the postmortal eternity to come. If our spirits are really able to communicate directly, without words, was our premortal existence, then, something similar to the Borg collective from Star Trek (without all the cybernetic hardware, of course)? Were we connected to some sort of group consciousness through the Spirit? If so, then I can understand why we would need to come here to earth, where the veil of the flesh interferes with most spiritual communication, so that we could truly be tested. We know that we had free will in the premortal world—Lucifer is proof of that—but was our agency complete? If we were spiritually linked to God—a part of the collective divine mind, as it were—were we really free to choose? Were we really able to be individuals? Or were we like the Borg? Did we have to come to earth in order to be severed from the collective, to experience true individuality, to have unfettered agency, to experience pain and anguish, to be tested and tried in isolation, to show God and ourselves who we really are?
Sometimes, I think, we have a rather naïve view of what the premortal existence was like. Indeed, we have a dual and certainly unrealistic image of what God’s life is like. One image is the God we meet in the temple, who exists in lonely solitude, except for the occasional visit from Jesus, who reports about things on earth and takes away errands to be performed by apostolic messengers. This God is apparently not omniscient, for he has to be given details of conditions on earth before offering instructions. The other image couldn’t be more opposite the temple image. We could call it a folk understanding shared by rank-and-file Latter-day Saints, whose off-hand comments as well as more specific descriptions paint a picture of growing up in Father’s immediate presence, bouncing on his knee, running around the celestial mansion with brothers and sisters, and probably having family home evening every Monday. Yes, with all 300 billion of my siblings.5 Logistically, I think we can be fairly sure that we had very little proximate personal contact with Heavenly Father. Perhaps none. But certainly he didn’t need messengers to fill him in on all of our thoughts, words, and acts. Which means neither image is very helpful. If we did have direct personal contact with him (if we did somehow live “in his presence”), our connection to him had to have been through some sort of Borg-like mental link, allowing us a degree of access to the divine mind but also denying us to some extent the ability to think for ourselves and make personal decisions.
If in the premortal world we were part of some sort of collective spiritual consciousness, what will the postmortal eternity be like? Will purified resurrected bodies not only provide no interference to spiritual communication, but perhaps even amplify it? Will we be Borg again, but on a much higher level, elated and enthralled by the spiritual connection that links us to the collective spiritual mind? I remember the spiritual high I experienced at the Ortmanns’ house and how it faded as we walked to the subway. And it was a high. Which brings up other questions. Is the Spirit a sort of mind-altering metaphysical drug that will fill us with joy and happiness and contentment and keep us on a constant high if we make it to the celestial kingdom? Or even if we land in one of the two lower kingdoms? Is the Spirit an eternally ubiquitous soma akin to Huxley’s serenity-inducing drug from Brave New World? Is our postmortal future one void of any sort of inner turmoil, disappointment, or frustration, as well as any interpersonal friction? If so, what are the implications of an existence without conflict?
I have pondered the question of how God would maintain peace and harmony in his kingdoms while still permitting individuality and free will. In fact, I’ve explored this very scenario in the story “Eternal Misfit,” published a few years ago in Dialogue. In a world filled with imperfect inhabitants, such as, say, the terrestrial kingdom, how would God prevent imperfect people from behaving as imperfect people and creating just the sort of chaos and contention and confusion that prevail on earth today? Is it even possible to keep perfect amity and tranquility without depriving people of the ability to be disagreeable or the capacity to create conflict? I see only two options. Either the hereafter is not quite so tranquil as we presume, or Heavenly Father maintains peace through external control. Is such peace managed through the Spirit, which acts not only as a medium of hypercommunication but perhaps also as a heavenly palliative or sedative? It will be fascinating to find out. Maybe.
Other troubling questions sprout from these. For instance, assuming heaven is as peaceful and perfect as we often assume, how are we to practice Christian virtues in the absence of evil and trouble and imperfection? How can we be forgiving if no one ever offends us? How can we be peacemakers if there is never conflict? How can we exercise patience if no one ever annoys us or delays us? The list is nearly endless. Indeed it is very hard for us to imagine what the hereafter will be like. From our limited perspective, any vision of the afterlife is fraught with logical impossibilities.
The creators of Star Trek repeatedly explored social, moral, and spiritual questions through alien races and futuristic technologies, and perhaps their most frightening invention, the Borg collective, combined the two. There is nothing more repulsive to the human mind than the loss of individuality and identity through technological assimilation (which I suppose many of us have achieved through our entanglements in the world of corporate employment), but to the already assimilated the collective consciousness can become both comforting and inescapable. Indeed, with the Borg, the desire to escape could not overpower the attraction of the collective.
And yes, in case you were wondering, I am aware of the obvious analogy here between the Borg collective and the LDS missionary experience: the assimilation into an acquiescent group, the sameness in appearance, the pervading corporate culture that produces an arresting mental conformity, the dedicated inward focus, and of course the compulsion to assimilate others. It is no secret that the adjustment after coming home from a mission can be even more jarring than the transition into missionary life. Breaking away from the collective mentality is not easy, even when you are forcibly removed from it, as all Mormon missionaries are. There is indeed something ultimately purposeful and reassuring in the collective existence.
One of the great unmet needs of mortality is the craving to truly communicate with other people. All of our communication in these physical bodies is limited and defective because it is symbolic. In spoken word or in print, we communicate through symbols. The words on this page are symbols. If I write “chair,” you translate that symbol into whatever you understand a chair to be—and it may look vastly different from the chair I envision when I write the symbol. If I write “passion” or “prejudice” or “perfection,” you and I have an even more difficult challenge in envisioning the same idea. So we use more words, more symbols—modifiers and metaphors and explanatory phrases—to increase understanding. When we speak, we use even more symbols—gestures and facial expressions and intonation—to communicate. But all these are still symbols, pale reflections of what we really feel and experience and wish others to understand.
Our whole existence is cluttered with symbols, which we use to try to tell people who we are, what we are thinking, and what we have experienced. We have status symbols—cars and homes and occupations and clothes and jewelry and even hairstyles—which we use to try to define ourselves, to make a statement about our identities, to tell people who we really are—or who we aren’t, if we want to deceive others. But all of these symbols fall woefully short. Nobody in this mortal world will ever really know who I am (unless the Spirit intervenes, as it did with me and the Ortmanns). And yet this craving to communicate, to be understood, stands opposed to an equally strong yearning for isolation, individuality, and uniqueness: the call of the collective on the one hand and the search for solitude on the other. We yearn for companionship and understanding, but we also shrink from it, fearing that in opening our souls too far we may lose them. This paradox is what makes our encounters with the Spirit both exciting and somewhat disconcerting. It is also what makes Mormon mission life so enthralling and so difficult to forsake on the one hand and so difficult to embrace on the other.
Our theology insists that we can become like God. This means we can become omniscient. And omniscience means not only that we will someday understand every living being in the universe with perfect intimacy but also that every other omniscient being will understand us in the same transparent way. Mormon theology thus suggests an existence in which there is no need to communicate, because the race of gods we aspire to join already knows everything that everyone will ever say. Why communicate even telepathically if there is nothing new to share? Is this the end of our quest for perfection? Something like the Q Continuum (also from Star Trek), a collection of eternally bored but seemingly omnipotent and omniscient beings?
So, what is the Spirit anyway? What is this force that flows through the universe, connects all living things, knows the innermost thoughts of our minds and the feelings of our hearts, and has the ability to make us feel an indescribable peace and joy? Is individuality merely a brief mortal aberration? Is this earth life our only opportunity in all of eternity where we at least perceive ourselves to be alone with our thoughts? If God is omniscient, then of course he knows what we are thinking, but he mostly remains in the background, allowing us space to believe we are alone, inserting himself only rarely, such as on that evening in West Berlin when he let me know he is there, always, inside my mind, perfectly aware, able at any moment to commandeer my consciousness.
Is this connection I felt in Berlin what Jesus was referring to when he said that we are to be one, even as he and the Father are one? Does this mean the Mormon Godhead of three distinct beings is a lot more like the traditional Christian trinity than we dare admit? Is our future a collective future? Is this why Joseph Smith tried so hard to establish a communitarian economy and a society where unity and submission prevailed? Does our cherished Mormon icon, the beehive, point less to our industriousness than to our unspoken goal of achieving hivelike conformity and uniformity? Frightening questions. I have no answers. All I know is that the evening of 30 May 1977 was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my mortal existence, and yet I don’t quite know what to think about it. When all is said and done, I wonder, is resistance futile?
- Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and perhaps the guilty too).
- Quoted by Boyd K. Packer, “Teach the Children,” Ensign 30, no. 2 (February 2000): 15.
- See Roger Terry, “Archaic Pronouns and Verbs in the Book of Mormon: What Inconsistent Usage Tells Us about Translation Theories,” Dialogue 47, no. 3 (2014): 53–80.
- Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 3:100, 22 October 1854.
- This admittedly conservative number includes the roughly 100 billion people who have lived on earth since 4000 BC, assuming two original parents, realistic average life spans for all centuries, and an annual birth rate of 80 per 1,000 at the outset, declining gradually to the current 23 per 1,000. Add to this 100 billion another 100 billion or so born during the Millennium, assuming a beginning population of 2.5 billion (after the great bonfire), reaching 10 billion after 42 years, then leveling off, with 100 million being born and dying every year (the life span being 100 years), and you get something over 200 billion spirits sent to Adam and Eve’s extended family. And that assumes the Millennium will start right away. If it is delayed by, say, 35 years, you can add another 6 or 7 billion. These calculations are based on a model devised by the Population Reference Bureau. It is probably very conservative, for several reasons. If, for instance, you leave the birth rate at 25 per 1,000 through the Millennium (with no sickness or premature death), earth’s population by the end of 1,000 years would exceed 15 quadrillion, clearly an infeasible population figure since this would leave slightly more than 1/3 of a square foot of the earth’s surface for each person (assuming no oceans). Soylent Green, anyone? Anyway, if we assume 200 billion of Father’s children who were or will be born on this earth, we need to add another 100 billion to account for Lucifer and his “third” of the hosts of heaven. This gives us 300 billion kids running around the heavenly mansion, give or take a dozen.