When I was in sixth grade, our teacher taught a science section on the nature of the atom. In our classroom we had a physical model with some wooden balls glued together to represent the protons and neutrons of the atomic nucleus, and some other balls on a metal wire tracks representing electrons and their orbits. I think most of us realized that real atoms weren’t made of wood, but beyond that we had no idea just how technically inaccurate and even misleading almost everything about this physical model was. The horrifically wrong relative dimensions, the portrayal of components as solid particles, the nice fixed orbits instead of fuzzy orbitals, and other aspects were already thoroughly “wrong” based on what was known in that day, and things have only gotten more complex since then. Taking the gross oversimplification of the Bohr Model of the atom, we learned about the building blocks of the material world: a neat kit of protons, neutrons, and electrons in their precisely fixed orbits gave us the foundation for everything.
My confidence in this young new teacher was not high (this is the same teacher who gave me a shocking 0%, an F, on a math test involving monetary sums even though all my calculations were correct, for I had not put a needless dollar sign in front of every answer), so I wondered if he was teaching us correctly. I went home that night and dug out an old encyclopedia that we had picked up at a garage sale a few years before. It was thoroughly out of date already, yet it had enough information on the atom to make me realize that what our teacher was passing off as science was just a tiny piece of the picture. I learned that there were more particles and entities to consider than just the three we had learned about. I didn’t understand what I read, but I learned about particles (actually classes of particles) called baryons and leptons. I think the article may have mentioned neutrinos and mesons as well. Mercifully, the encyclopedia was too old to mention the existence of quarks, gluons, and the intricacies of quantum chromodynamics, or what happened the next day in class could have been an even bigger headache for everyone.
In a few moments of superficial study, I had learned for myself that the world of physics and the nature of matter were much more complicated that what our teacher had said. Well! I rubbed my hangs together with glee as I pondered an embarrassing question or two I would ask the next day as he wrapped up the science unit and asked, “Are there any questions?”
At that age, I struggled with the dual affliction of being both a nerd and a smart aleck. Students, if you are suffering from this as well, please get therapy before it’s too late. As I would gradually learn, this combination usually does not win much respect from teachers or from the cute girls I sometimes tried to impress. There are better ways, so I’ve heard.
The next day the magic moment came: “Are there any questions?” Hah, he has played right into my trap! My hand sprung up. “Yes, uh, I’m wondering if you could tell us about some of the other subatomic particles that are important parts of matter. You know, particles like baryons and leptons.”
“Yes,” I said knowingly, perhaps even a bit triumphantly, “it turns out that there are quite a few other particles besides just electrons, protons, and neutrons, so maybe we should learn about those, too.”
“Well, Jeff, maybe you’d like to tell us a few things about them.” Hmm, he didn’t crumble as quickly as I hoped.
“Sure. Baryons are heavy subatomic particles, and leptons are light subatomic particles, and their are neutrinos and muons and many other things. So I just think we should include these, too.”
“Uh, right. Let me look into that and get back to you later. But today, it’s time to move on to our next subject….”
Smelled like a cover-up. Totally evasive. I had exposed the weak underbelly of 6th-grade science education.
My silly and rather ignorant question may have been perceived as hostile and annoying, and that would be accurate. However, deep down there was a sincere desire to understand, not just to criticize and show off. I wanted to know more and not have my questions blown off. He never got back to me on my questions–I would have respected him much more if he had even tried.
I was put off by the grossly oversimplified model that was being presented, but in my ignorance failed to appreciate why it was useful for both teaching and even actual scientific calculations. It was far from complete, but useful. Teaching it was not the result of dishonesty or a cover-up, though I feel it would have been much better had the teacher added a disclaimer like this:
In reality, for those of you who care, the atom is much more complex than our little model shows and things like electrons and protons aren’t really nice round particles at all, though they sometimes act like particles, and other times don’t. The details are way beyond what we can cover in this class, but if you want to know more, I can suggest some books to read.
I loved science and would go on to study it more over the years. Later I would learn about quantum chemistry and the bewildering more advanced models we have for the nature of electrons and other components of matter. I would take a graduate-level class on quantum chemistry that still makes my head spin when I think about it, though I somehow managed to get a decent grade. In later readings I would learn of string theory, multiple dimensions, dark energy and dark matter, and a host of other bewilderments that make me feel that today I know much less about the nature of matter and the universe than I did in sixth grade.
The universe is a complex place, and so is the Gospel and Church history. History can be profoundly complicated as we struggle with conflicting accounts and inadequate documentation, not to mention our lack of psychic skills understanding the real motives for apparent actions. As for matters of doctrine and the things of God, we have models to describe concepts like the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement, the nature of sin, godliness, spirits, the spirit world, and Eternal Life, but we know so very little and can easily import numerous incorrect assumptions into our models and into what we teach and into the questions we formulate as we struggle to understand. Once we detect that some things are more complex than we realized, we may mistakenly interpret the gaps as the fruits of deception, when they may be the result of sloppiness, mistaken assumptions, or a good faith effort to simplify in order to teach basic principles. Or other times just painful mortal blunders.
In reflecting upon my sixth-grade experience, I see an analogy to the Gospel and the issue of dealing with doubts and tough questions about our faith. My antagonistic stance before the teacher sometimes resembles those who throw out seemingly hostile questions, the kind we sometimes view as “anti-Mormon.” Yes, there may be hostile intent with a loaded question or criticism that might embarrass or weaken faith. At the same time, many who ask these questions still have, to some degree, especially initially, a sincere desire to know and not just belittle. Some are learning and are simply troubled when they find out that Church history or other elements related to our faith are much more complicated than the simple models they learned in Sunday School or seminary. When these questions come, we would be wise to take them seriously and not belittle or ignore the person who might actually be asking with a touch of sincerity, or even deep and obvious sincerity. We may not have the answers, but we can help. We can help that person know that we care, that there may be answers, and there may be people who have those answers, and try to actually get back to them with something more useful than just saying “pray about it” (though that is, of course, an essential component in dealing with doubts and in building our testimonies and our relationship with God).
There are legitimate questions and legitimate doubts that we may face. How can it be any other way given how little we know and how much there is yet to be learned and revealed? How can we not face troubling questions as we expend out knowledge to break past oversimplified models and touch upon the bewilderments of a “quantum faith” with its spiritual quarks and all their strangeness, charm, and unseeable color? For some of these questions, we can only wait and hope for more to be revealed or learned. But for many questions, there are great answers and people who can help us face them. We must let those who doubt know that we care and will get back to them. We can help them turn to resources like those at The Mormon Interpreter, the Maxwell Institute, FAIRMormon, LDS.org, and other resources, along with the writings of many authors who tackle tough issues related to our faith, sometimes even with brilliance.
People with tough questions may discover, as I have discovered, that many of the weaknesses in our faith have, with time, become strengths. For example, many once challenging attacks on the Book of Mormon have not just been blunted by further research and discovery, but have become pillars of strength for the case of Book of Mormon plausibility.
I could mention things like the many recent discoveries related to the journey of Nephi’s group through the Arabian Peninsula, including archaeological finds from Lehi’s day supporting the case for a rare place name mentioned by Nephi being exactly where and when it was supposed to be. I could mention the many discoveries pointing to the plausibility of ancient writing on metal plates, or the use of cement in the ancient Americas, or intriguing little details like the once laughable use of Alma as a man’s name in the Book of Mormon–when everyone knows it’s a modern woman’s name–now confirmed as an ancient Jewish male name from records unearthed long after Joseph Smith’s day. The Book of Mormon today is truer than ever, with a growing array of evidences to help overcome objections and give room for faith and the Spirit. In many areas where the Book of Mormon once had big question marks, we now have answers, and sometimes very impressive answers, turning weakness into strength. The Book of Mormon doesn’t just withstand study and scrutiny, it invites it, it urges us to study, ponder, and dig into to the text. Take it seriously. Don’t blow it off as an annoyance now worthy of a response.
When we are willing to apply both faith and patience, the quest for more knowledge and the challenge of dealing with doubts can lead to journeys that uncover many treasures that steadily strengthen our testimony. That testimony isn’t just fuzzy emotions. It involves the mind and serious intellectual processes. One of the things I love about the Gospel is that we are invited to think, to ponder, to study, and to reason, and even to apply a form of the scientific method in gaining knowledge about the details of the Gospel. That is the point of Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, a chapter addressed to those with a high level of doubt because they were just on the verge of believing. Alma challenged them to experiment with the word and to put principles of the Gospel to the test, scientifically, and observe the fruits of the experiment as people apply and live those principles. He speaks of true principles causing not just spiritual feelings, but intellectual enlightenment as the mind expands. In the Doctrine & Covenants, we are also reminded that revelation involves both hearth and mind (D&C 8:2,3). Our minds should expand and grow in knowledge as we pursue the things go the Spirit.
While I have more questions than ever about the nature of the universe and about the nature of God and the Gospel, there are some core things that we can grasp and know to be real. Just as we can know that there is a nucleus inside the atom with real properties, whatever it may be and however it is held together, we can also identify and know some core truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While I am confused by the complexity of matter and space, I can marvel and rejoice at the intricacy of the design of the cosmos and its very fabric that gives us such remarkable physical properties to enable the majesty of stars and galaxies, of planets and our ecosystem, and the glory of things like the carbon atom that enables the machinery of life. The more I learn about matter and physics, the more I marvel that a solution was even possible to enable this wondrous existence of ours and the glory of the heavens. The more I learn about the Gospel, in spite of all my questions, the more I can appreciate the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and their love for us. And the more I can appreciate the power of the Book of Mormon, even with its puzzles and warts, as a witness of Jesus Christ and an authentic ancient document that can bring us closer to God–if we’ll let it, if we’ll press forward with patience and faith, and if we’ll never stop learning and seeking to understand more. May we press forward with patience, and add to our own patience a little patience for those who annoy us with their seemingly ignorant questions, who triumphantly toss out information that might be meant to embarrass, yet who may have a willingness to grow and learn if only we can get back to them with helpful answers to what may have at least started as a sincere question. Some critics are just out to attack no matter what, but some doubters really need the benefit of a doubt in order to move on toward more intelligent faith.